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Art Therapy Ideas for Substance Abuse Recovery and Behavioral Health


Art therapy is an effective therapeutic tool that can help substance abuse patients explore their feelings in a non-confrontational way. Substance abuse disorders will often be rooted in deep emotional pain from childhood trauma, depression, grief, or other difficult situations. Learning to process these overwhelming emotions is one of the most important steps towards long-term recovery. The creative process allows patients to access repressed feelings and begin to understand the underlying sources of their addictions.  

Art therapy is designed to complement other recovery services like talk therapy, medication management, and support groups. The treatment is overseen by a trained art therapist who helps patients interpret their experiences and explore strong emotions in a healthy way. There are many art therapy activities that can support the substance abuse recovery process, but here are some useful examples.  

Art therapy for substance abuse recovery and behavioral health journeys. 
The opportunity to express their personal experience without judgement through art can be an immensely helpful experience for patients. 

The First Step Series  

One of the most used art therapy techniques for working with substance abuse patients is a five-part project called The First Step Series. This activity was developed to guide participants towards recognizing the need for change, and to help them feel empowered about making those changes. Patients are asked to create five art pieces that relate to their experience with substance abuse.  

The Crisis Directive: The first activity is a drawing about what led them to seek treatment and start the recovery process. It can depict a specific incident or just the nature of their current reality while struggling with substance abuse. Patients are also asked to reflect on the feelings that come up while working on the drawing.      

The Recovery Bridge Drawing: The patient will draw a bridge that shows where they have been with their substance abuse, where they are now, and where they hope to reach in their recovery. This visual prompt is meant to get clients to engage with the prospect of making big changes in their lives.   

The Cost-Benefits Collage: The third piece encourages patients to think about the costs and benefits of continuing to abuse substances, versus the costs and benefits of getting sober. Patients gather images from magazines and newspapers to make a representation of these very different scenarios.  

The “Year from Now” Directive: The patient is asked to continue reflecting on how life would be different after reaching sobriety. This task is to make two drawings of where they might be in one year, with one being a future in recovery and the other is while continuing to abuse substances.   These images can provide patients with a powerful sense of motivation to create the conditions for a more positive future.  

The Barriers to Recovery Directive: This final task is to illustrate the possible problems that will make it hard to stay sober, including issues like depression, stress, and loneliness. The goal of this activity is to help the patient and his recovery team develop a plan for how to better support long-term recovery.  

Drawing A Life Timeline  

This therapeutic activity is designed to encourage indirect reflection about the origins and effects of a whole host of behavioral health concerns. Patients make a visual representation of their lives by drawing a timeline that begins on the year of their birth and ends with the current year. They are then guided to think about the most significant events of their lives, both good and bad. This can include major job changes, meeting an important friend, graduation from college, or the death of a family member. As patients fill in where the milestones are on the timeline, they also draw symbols that represent the event.  

Once the timeline is completed, the patient is encouraged to write in a journal about the emotions inspired by this activity. The art therapist can also offer some general prompts, such as “Are there moments that inspire happiness?”, “Do some experiences cause feelings of regret?”, “Are there events that helped you become a better person?” The conversation is designed to help the patient become aware of their own feelings and begin working through unresolved conflicts.  

Transformational Self-Portraits  

It’s very helpful for substance abuse and behavioral health patients to begin to feel empowered and capable of solving their own problems. The concept of this project is to encourage them to imagine the potential for transformation. The task is to create three self-portraits using any materials they like, such as drawing, painting, or a collage. The three images will become part of a mural that depicts the patient’s recovery process.  

The First Self-Portrait: Patients will create this self-portrait by thinking about an experience or event that has affected them negatively. It can be something from a long time ago, or it can be about their recent difficulties with substance abuse. The piece will be a reflection of how they felt during this negative event, including any words that represent their emotions. 

The Second Self-Portrait: For this piece, the patient is encouraged to show where they are at this moment with their recovery journey. They can respond to prompts like “What are your current challenges?”, “What are you doing now to support your recovery?”, and “What have you discovered about yourself so far since beginning treatment?” 

The Third Self-Portrait: The final piece will depict a hopeful future of sobriety, better coping skills, and improved mental health. Patients can think about what they hope to achieve and how they will feel when they accomplish these milestones.  

Putting the Self-Portraits Together: The three pieces are then arranged in order as part of a mural of transformation. The finished project can be the starting point for a conversation about concrete steps the patient should take to support their journey.  

Behavioral health patient painting a self-portrait in an art therapy session.
Self-portraits can serve as therapeutic mirrors for those on a journey to wellness. 

Drawing or Painting Emotions  

This unstructured activity simply asks patients to show how they feel, in any medium they choose. The project offers patients an outlet to communicate thoughts and feelings they can’t put into words, even if the work is wildly abstract. They can also become more in touch with their feelings and even learn to differentiate between different emotional states. The art therapist is there to validate their experience and help the patient reflect. Some questions they might ask about a completed work might include: 

  • What were you thinking about while creating this piece? 
  • Did you have any strong emotions? 
  • Are there any words that you associate with this piece? 
  • How does this piece relate to your healing?

Freedom to Focus on Patient Care 

Art therapy can have a beneficial, transformative, even revelatory effect on patients seeking help for behavioral health concerns. Try incorporating some of these concepts into your own practice to see the good and healing it can bring.  

Meanwhile, trust an electronic health record like TenEleven to manage the day-to-day of your organization’s administrative duties. With TenEleven handling everything from scheduling appointmentsmanaging your revenue cycle, and reporting, you’re able to truly focus on dipping your brush in the paints and maximize patient care.  

Schedule your free demo of TenEleven’s electronic clinical record (eCR) today.  

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