Art as Therapy in Addiction Treatment

Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Cassandra Gabriel, ATR, PCCI

Art therapy is a therapeutic tool, being used in addiction treatment, that interconnects mind and body through art making. The art created through this modality facilitates tangible evidence of a client’s progress and emotional relief through creative expression.


Addiction treatment often involves dual-diagnosis and trauma work, emphasizing the importance of multifaceted treatment. Incorporating art therapy into substance abuse treatment is not a new idea, yet understanding its dynamic benefits is often under estimated. Creating an approach for our clients using multiple modalities that stretch beyond standard talk therapy practices offer a deeper understanding of a client’s complex, clinical presentation and facilitates an alternative method of self-expression. Using integrative methods involving kinesthetic, perceptual, symbolic, and sensory techniques art therapy invites the client to process their experience in ways separate from verbal articulation alone (American Art Therapy Association). Incorporating these combined techniques and gently guiding clients through verbal processing, the artwork created in art therapy enhances self-evaluation and deeper insight.

Over this past year at North Bay Recovery Center, I have utilized various art therapy directives to aid my clients in their recovery process and I have focused on several themes relevant to their clinical goals. Combining Motivational Interviewing (MI), the Stages of Change Model (SOC), and art therapy techniques in therapeutic intervention, my clients and I target areas of ambivalence, personal strengths, choice, and reality testing. The Recovery Bridge Drawing directive of “Complete a bridge depicting where you have been, where you are now, and where you want to be in relation to your recovery” is such an example highlighting client’s anxiety and fear of change (Holt & Kaiser, 2009). Elements of danger in the artwork, such as cracked foundation, road blocks and hazards, sharks swimming beneath the bridge, and ominous weather all serve as looming metaphors in the future. These concerns, which can be difficult to identify and verbalize, become clear symbols in the art and can be used as a foundation in the discussion of ambivalence to provide support specifically around these fears.

A clinician’s non-confrontational response is also important to provide a therapeutic environment in order to gently point out discrepancies and acknowledge a normal level of ambivalence present within a client (Horay, 2006). Over time, clients gradually become more comfortable exploring areas of grey with the therapist’s support instead of fixed black and white thinking. This flexibility and tolerance can promote trust, align with the client attitudes, empower the client to accept ambivalence, and hopefully encourage internal motivation for change. The layered approach of these modalities further provides evidence that art therapy holds value as a therapeutic model in substance abuse treatment.


American Art Therapy Association. (n.d.). About Art Therapy. Retrieved July 24, 2017, from

Holt, E., & Kaiser, D. (2009). The First Step Series: Art therapy for early substance abuse treatment. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 36, 245-250.

Horay, B. (2006). Moving Towards Gray: Art Therapy and Ambivalence in Substance Abuse Treatment. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 23(1), 14-22.