Creative Arts Therapists


Education and Training Requirements

High School

To become a creative arts therapist, you will need a bachelor's degree, so take a college preparatory curriculum while in high school. You should become as proficient as possible with the methods and tools related to the type of creative arts therapy you wish to pursue. When therapists work with patients they must be able to concentrate completely on the patient rather than on learning how to use tools or techniques. For example, if you want to become involved in music therapy, you need to be familiar with musical instruments as well as music theory. A good starting point for a music therapist is to study piano or guitar. 

In addition to courses such as drama, art, music, and English, you should consider taking an introductory class in psychology. Also, a communication class will give you an understanding of the various ways people communicate, both verbally and nonverbally.

Postsecondary Training

To become a creative arts therapist you must earn at least a bachelor's degree, usually in the area in which you wish to specialize. For example, those studying to be art therapists typically have undergraduate degrees in studio art, art education, or psychology with a strong emphasis on art courses as well.

In most cases, however, you will also need a graduate degree before you can gain certification as a professional or advance in your chosen field. Requirements for admission to graduate schools vary by program, so you would be wise to contact the graduate programs you are interested in to find out about their admissions policies. For some fields you may be required to submit a portfolio of your work along with the written application. Professional organizations can be a good source of information regarding high-quality programs. For example, both the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) and the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) provide lists of schools that meet their standards for approval.

In graduate school, your study of psychology and the arts field you are interested in will be in-depth. Classes for someone seeking a master's in art therapy, for example, may include group psychotherapy, foundation of creativity theory, assessment and treatment planning, and art therapy presentation. In addition to classroom study, you will also complete an internship or supervised practicum (that is, work with clients). Depending on your program, you may also need to write a thesis or present a final artistic project before receiving your degree.

Other Education or Training

Participating in continuing education (CE) classes and webinars is a great way to keep your skills up to date and learn about new developments in creative arts therapy; CE credits may also be required to renew one’s certification. Most creative arts therapy associations provide some form of professional development opportunities. For example, the AMTA offers continuing education e-courses. Topics include professional ethics, career enhancement, and music therapy interventions, applications, and therapy strategies. The AATA offers CE classes at its annual conference that cover topics such as clinical approaches, theory and assessment, and contemporary issues and current trends.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Typically, the nationally recognized association or certification board specific to your field of choice offers registration and certification. For example, the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) offers registration and certification to art therapists, and the American Dance Therapy Association offers registration to dance therapists. Other organizations that provide certification include the American Music Therapy Association, International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy, and American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama.

In general, requirements for registration include completing an approved therapy program and having a certain amount of experience working with clients. Requirements for higher levels of registration or certification generally involve having additional work experience and passing a written exam.

For a specific example, consider the certification process for an art therapist: An art therapist may receive the designation registered art therapist (known as the "ART") from the ATCB after completing a graduate program (including art therapy core curriculum, supervised practicum, and internship experiences) and having some experience working with clients. The next level, then, is to become a board certified art therapist (ART-BC) by passing an examination. To retain certification status, therapists must complete a certain amount of continuing education.

Many registered creative arts therapists also hold additional licenses in other fields, such as social work, education, mental health, or marriage and family therapy. In some states, creative arts therapists need licensing depending on their place of work. For specific information on licensing in your field, you will need to check with your state's licensing board. 

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Creative arts therapists must first be proficient in the art—whether it is dance, art, creative writing, or theater they use to help clients. Completing an internship or assistantship in creative arts therapy is also highly recommended.

To succeed as a creative arts therapist, you should have a strong desire to help others seek positive change in their lives. All types of creative arts therapists must be able to work well with other people—both patients and other health professionals—in the development and implementation of therapy programs. You must have the patience and the stamina to teach and practice therapy with patients for whom progress is often very slow because of their various physical and emotional disorders. A therapist must always keep in mind that even a tiny amount of progress might be extremely significant for some patients and their families. A good sense of humor is also a valuable trait.