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WVU adds Art Therapy Degree

A student participates in a figure drawing studio class

A new Bachelor of Arts degree in West Virginia University’s School of Art & Design will blend studio art training with psychology and counseling skills, giving graduates the foundations to pursue careers in the growing field of art therapy.

“Art therapy is a mental health profession that combines creative art making with human service skills,” said Dr. Annie McFarland, assistant professor of art education. “Art therapy can be used to target specific therapeutic goals, promote healing and improve overall mental health and wellness.”

Art therapy has shown to be beneficial in a variety of therapeutic settings and McFarland says it’s becoming more and more popular as a treatment modality for anxiety reduction, substance use disorders and trauma recovery.

“A lot of this work has to do with self-expression within a safe and supportive environment,” McFarland said. “In the case of trauma, the linguistic part of the brain can become disconnected from visual memories and experiences, often causing difficulties in verbal discussion. Art can act as a placeholder for communication until an individual is ready to start verbally processing their experiences.”

A WVU student learns to throw clay on pottery wheel.

To graduate with a Bachelor of Art in Art Therapy, students will take 27 studio art credits, 12 credits of psychology and communications courses, and 12 credits in Therapeutic Art courses. Upon completion, students will also earn a human services minor to further prepare for their work within the community. 

While students won’t practice clinical work during their undergraduate career, they will learn valuable community arts facilitation skills in order to become comfortable with leading groups through art making and communications activities.

“Our students will develop the necessary skills to enter community centers, nursing homes and other community arts spaces to provide creative art-making experiences” McFarland said. “There may be some therapeutic aspects for the group participants but for our undergraduate students, our degree is really all about learning to engage people through art and facilitate meaningful and expressive experiences.”

Letters are carved into linoleum in WVU printmaking studio.

For West Virginia, this new degree could add much needed healthcare and human services workers to deal with the state’s opioid and mental health crises. 

“Art therapy can be a really helpful resource for people who are struggling with substance use disorders,” McFarland said. “In addition to individuals, families and children affected by familial substance use can participate in art therapy, too, allowing healing for larger groups and communities. 

“Another issue we see in West Virginia is exponentially higher numbers of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Whether those experiences include physical or emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness or violence within the household, art therapy can potentially provide creative outlets to help mitigate the effects of toxic stress from exposure to ACEs”.

For additional information on the program and enrollment in the College of Creative Arts, contact James Froemel, program coordinator for undergraduate admissions, at 304-293-4339 or