Art therapist

Art therapists work with people to explore their emotions and feelings through art and creative activities. Using materials such as paint, paper and clay, they help people to express themselves and build self-confidence.

They support children and young people, adults and older people who may have emotional, physical or mental health problems.

To work in the NHS, art therapists must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Starting your career

Choosing subjects at school

To get on a course that could lead to a career as an art therapist, useful subjects include:

  • Art and Design
  • Psychology
  • Maths
  • English

A Foundation Apprenticeship in Social Services and Healthcare, taken in S5 or S6, could help you gain new skills and valuable work experience.

Find out more about Foundation Apprenticeships at apprenticeships.scot.

Work placement

If you’re at school or thinking of changing career, doing a work placement could help you when applying to college, university or for a job in healthcare. You’ll learn new skills, improve your knowledge and discover what it’s like to work in the health service. Find out how to apply for work experience in the NHS.

University study

In Scotland, you can do a postgraduate programme in Art Psychotherapy at Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh. This pre-registration programme takes 2 years full-time or 3-4 years part-time. To get on the course, you are likely to need:

  • an honours degree in art or a related subject
  • a portfolio of artwork in a variety of media
  • one-year work experience or voluntary work in community arts projects, or healthcare, social work or education

Undergraduate degrees in subjects like psychology, teaching, occupational therapy, nursing or social work may also be considered.

For more information on related further and higher education courses, search My World of Work. You should check specific entry requirements before applying.

To decide if this career is right for you, you may decide to do an art therapy workshop or foundation course. Training is provided by the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT).

The role

As an art therapist, you will create a secure environment where people can come to terms with their difficulties, disabilities or diagnoses. These include:

  • emotional, behavioural or mental health problems
  • learning or physical disabilities
  • life-limiting conditions
  • neurological conditions or physical illnesses

You will support people individually or as part of a group.

What you’ll do

Tasks include:

  • assessing the needs of clients
  • evaluating and understanding the emotions and behaviours of others
  • planning and facilitating creative activities
  • accepting referrals from other health professionals, such as occupational therapists and psychologists

Top skills

You’ll need these skills:

  • artistic skills and ideas
  • communicating with people
  • observation skills
  • building relationships with people
  • caring for people
  • helping people

Who you’ll work with

Art therapists work with other healthcare professionals, including:

  • psychologists
  • nurses
  • healthcare support workers
  • social workers
  • teachers
  • dramatherapists
  • music therapists

Working environment

You could work in:

  • hospitals
  • schools and education centres
  • hospices
  • care homes
  • prisons

Useful information

To work as an art therapist in NHSScotland, you’ll need to:

Did you know?

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. There are more than 4,400 registered arts therapists in the UK, including art, drama and music therapists.

Learning and development

The professional body for arts therapists in the UK is the British Association of Arts Therapists (BAAT). You can become a member once you’ve qualified as an art therapist.

During your career, you’d be expected to keep your skills and knowledge up to date through Continuing Professional Development (CPD). The BAAT provides training courses, conferences and seminars where art therapists can exchange ideas and update their skills.

Career progression

You could choose to specialise in working with specific client groups, such as children and young people, older people or offenders. You may decide to become a specialist in a particular area, such as supporting people with dementia, mental health problems or those receiving palliative care.

As an experienced practitioner, you could become a senior or consultant art therapist, managing the work of a team of therapists. You could also become the head of an arts therapy department, coordinating the work of therapists from other disciplines such as music therapy or drama therapy. Other opportunities include training other art therapists.