The Importance of Art Psychotherapy- In Conversation with Carol Phillips

Carol Phillips
Carol Phillips

Due to working with children and adults with learning difficulties I’ve become very interested in psychotherapy and how local governments and social services accommodate the skillsets of art psychotherapists.

I was very happy to meet practicing artist and art psychotherapist Carol Phillips who was happy to share her views on the subject.

What exactly is art psychotherapy and how does it work?

Art Psychotherapy is similar to talking therapies in that it draws on common psychotherapeutic theory but is enhanced by the use of image as another tool for expression and as a tangible representation of symptoms, and of change. The use of image also presents an opportunity to view one’s internal world from a distance, offering the individual taking part the chance to objectively reflect on subjective experiences via the creative process and the three-way relationship between client, therapist and image.

What are the social benefits of Art Psychotherapy?

The social benefits can be considered in a number of ways. An individual looking to take part in therapy is usually looking to make developments personally and inter- personally.

Art Psychotherapy, whether it is group therapy or individual one-to-one therapy, will aid the resolution of problems, complexes or symptoms. This will typically enhance social functioning.

What it also does is work along a life affirming, almost spiritual angle allowing an individual to work on the validation of their own individual and unique style and the creation of a meaningful existence.

A deeper connection to self and ‘other’ can be proven to work via the use of commonly known psychotherapeutic techniques, but I believe it is also enhanced through the understanding of self via the therapeutic triad: therapist + image+ client. This puts a different slant on things and works on a deeper level.

Significant to this deeper level of understanding is the acknowledgement of everyone’s connection to universal and archetypal symbols. These things are fundamental to our existence and understanding of the world around us. They have been utilised by ancient and modern civilisations within ritualised and religious practises. These things represent our innate connection to each other and to the universe.

Lastly, the understanding of self through the image is often non-verbal and allows a fluid link to deeply subconscious thoughts, feelings, beliefs and perceptions generated before language was fully developed. A primitive connection to process and form replicates the early mother and child relationship, which usually allows an increased appreciation and attachment to people, places and things.

Little Girl by Carol Phillips
Little Girl by Carol Phillips

Is it fair to say your profession and its societal contribution goes unrecognised?

I think that the use of Arts Therapies has grown and that its benefits are more acknowledged now. Art therapy was mostly used within psychiatric settings and now they are used in schools, rehabilitation services, youth services, palliative care and many more. Despite this, and although I haven’t been out of work since I finished training, I feel that it can sometimes be hard getting colleagues, managers, institutions etc to take you seriously. Sometimes you can be working with a young person or adult and the process of development, healing and engagement can be sabotaged by those who don’t respect the need for boundaries, confidentiality, respect for the image and safeguarding of the therapeutic/ artistic space. In short the importance of creativity and its benefits are often minimised, therefore it is at times passed aside or forgotten about and neglected.

I’m an advocate for more community art and increased dialogue between artists and other professions working in the public sector. Is there an advance in the way health, education and social services incorporate art as a therapeutic resource?

I think there are definitely advances in thinking and the use of art image and practice, however I think there is still much more work to be done. Arts therapies are losing out to evidence based therapies that are based on the easy collection of statistics and the use of medicalised assessments.

This type of evaluation is hard to use alongside creative therapies and in a way shouldn’t be used alongside creative therapies. Creative therapies talk about something more subjective, about the human experience, something that is enough in itself and doesn’t need qualifying.

There is in my opinion a tendency to follow whatever is deemed popular by governing bodies, and this acceptance of facts without substance means that art therapies and other arts initiatives are not maintained and supported even though they obviously work well and are beneficial for those taking part. Such fickle swaying from one thing to another is not mature thinking. A balanced approach would see all these things given appropriate space and representation.

How did you get into art and art psychotherapy?

I have always been interested in making art and being creative, and have maintained it within hobbies for many years. I finished studying art, however, at ‘A’ level and moved on to study dance for a short period and then did an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Healing Arts.

During this time I became fascinated by psychotherapeutic practises, especially the process of personality development and an individual’s move towards individuation.

After this course I had in mind the idea that I would do either dance therapy or art psychotherapy. To do an accredited arts therapies course you are required to have two years initial experience working with vulnerable groups. It was during this time working as an activities coordinator within a psychiatric day unit that I fully witnessed the benefits of spontaneous image making for those struggling with emotional difficulties. After this experience I knew for definite that I wanted to make this my career and applied to study at the University of Hertfordshire.

Gestation by Carol Phillips
Gestation by Carol Phillips

How can artists of various disciplines become further involved in art psychotherapy?

It depends how you want to go about it, I think. Formal training is one thing and any artist, actor or dancer can explore the arts therapies courses that are becoming more widespread within England and abroad, either as short courses or degree courses.

There are usually quite a few opportunities to join art therapists in community-based projects. However it can be difficult to join in with art therapy projects due to the therapeutic boundaries and confidentiality. This would mean the artist working in a way that might seem unnatural for them, although I am sure it would be a positive development and I know artists who work very sensitively with communities. It is also very therapeutic for those taking part.

Art therapy isn’t for everybody, however, and the British Association of Art Therapy regularly holds seminars that are open to everyone. As an artist and a therapist I try to meet up with other artists and get involved with arts projects, exhibitions, and other arts initiatives happening around me.


I wish Carol the very best with her career and look forward to the possibility of working with her. For further information on her services please visit her website

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Art Psychotherapy- In Conversation with Carol Phillips

  1. This is a great article thank you. Very interesting and exciting to learn how people are helping others in so many ways. Congratulations to Carol and to you David for taking the time and effort to share it with us..

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