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The Art Therapy Profession

We’ve invited Dr. Girija Kaimal, the President-Elect of the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), to share insights on the professional practice of art therapy, the certification process, continuing education opportunities for therapists, and how clients can benefit the most from art therapy interventions.

Art therapy prioritizes what “feels right” to the client, and what the client chooses to express is valued by the therapist. Dr. Kaimal says that this adherence to an “unconditional positive regard” for the client’s artistic experience helps the client focus on “the process, not the end art product.” This sensitivity to a broader range of expression can also require more advanced cultural competence and ways of being with clients in the therapy room.

Interestingly, Dr. Kaimal shares how art therapy first gained traction in the United States as an answer to World War II veterans who had experienced shell shock during the war and were less responsive to traditional psychoanalytic interventions that were popular at the time. Art therapy became a way to “reduce [a client’s] sense of isolation” and work through traumatic experiences.

But being a credible art therapist requires much more than just using art in a therapy setting. Extensive training includes a masters-level education from an accredited program, specialized clinical placements, and a minimum of 1,000 hours of supervised clinical work to become eligible for the Registered Art Therapist (ATR) credential. As Dr. Kaimal outlines in the video, art therapists can take an additional examination to become a Board-Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC), the “clinical benchmark” for the art therapy discipline. The AATA has a 50-state strategy to ensure that ATR and ATR-BC clinicians receive insurance reimbursement. Dr. Kaimal acknowledges that the AATA has not yet met that goal, but “15 states” have approved and protected the credentials so far.   

Dr. Kaimal also encourages clients to use the “art therapist locater tool” through the AATA and the Art Therapy Credentials Board websites to find local therapists who may be open to prospective clients. Other important considerations for clients to think about prior to their visit include what type of setting they prefer—onsite in a same-location session or online through video conferencing—whether they desire a therapist with a similar cultural background, how often they would like to meet for sessions, and any insurance compatibility issues that could affect their choice. Sometimes, art therapists specialize in a particular group of clients, such as veterans or LGBTQ individuals, or they may have expertise working with certain mental health disorders.

According to Dr. Kaimal, telehealth can also bring distinct advantages. Clients do not need to worry as much about commuting constraints, parking restrictions, geographic limitations, or discomforts meeting therapists in their private offices. Of course, for telemental health clinicians, confidentiality concerns, having the right camera angles, and finding enough adequate digital tools could be potential barriers.

Although the total number of registered art therapists worldwide is steadily growing, Dr. Kaimal estimates that the AATA has about “4,200 members.” For therapists who choose to join the AATA, Dr. Kaimal stresses that therapists of all experience levels can receive support through the community, access an online platform to engage with other members, discover new research efforts, and advocate for the advancement of the profession. Since Dr. Kaimal strives to build an inclusive community at the AATA, one priority is attracting members from diverse demographic backgrounds and areas of expertise.

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Dr. Girija Kaimal, EdD, MA, ATR-BC, is an Associate Professor in the Ph.D. Program in Creative Arts Therapies at the Drexel University and the Assistant Dean for Special Research Initiatives. In her Health, Arts, Learning and Evaluation (HALE) research lab, she examines physiological and psychological outcomes of creative visual self-expression. Dr. Kaimal currently leads studies examining arts-based approaches to health among cancer caregivers, active-duty military service members, and veterans. She has led longitudinal evaluation research studies examining arts-based approaches to school leadership development and teacher incentives, and she has also won national awards for her research.

Dr. Kaimal is the President-Elect of the American Art Therapy Association and has served as part of the organization’s Board of Directors. She has been an advisor and editorial board member for several arts and health journals. Additionally, Dr. Kaimal is a practicing visual artist who explores the intersection of identity and representation of emotion.

By: Michael Tugendhat

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