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benefits of art therapy

The Benefits of Art Therapy for Addiction Recovery

A client of a prominent east coast drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility bounced into group one morning eager to share the arts and crafts project she had been assigned to complete the week prior. Clients were given blank paper mâché masks and access to a supply cabinet stocked to the gills with basic craft supplies and asked to visually represent the face they show to the world on the outside of the mask, and what’s really happening within on the inside of the mask. With her mask tucked safely inside a paper bag, she allowed her fellow clients to show off their designs as they narrated the creative process behind their inception.

The Benefits of Art Therapy for Addiction Recovery

One by one, clients trotted out their creations, some abstract or cartoonish in appearance, others painstakingly crafted in their owner’s likeness, but all with some version of darkness or chaos lining their interiors. One was a study in black and white, unadorned on the outside and caked in globs of black tempera on the inside. One client, instead of painting the mask at all, chose to cut it to pieces that she let flutter to the floor with a dramatic flick of the wrist.

When it was finally her turn, she giddily unveiled her masterpiece – the Mona Lisa of rehab mask projects – hand painted to match her exact skin tone and the muted greens of her irises, complete with adhesive drug store eyelashes and finished with long shanks of blonde hair cut from a $40 wig overnighted courtesy of Amazon Prime just for the occasion. This was the face she had become accustomed to showing the world — one of perfection in the details while she skillfully concealed the 24/7 pandemonium that took place behind the scenes. Thus, in contrast to the flawless exterior, the inside of the mask resembled an elaborate high school science project – the architecture of a brain bedazzled with chaotic bursts of color, sparkling gemstones, and Styrofoam eyeballs projected in 3D by curlicue pipe cleaners.

Art Therapy Reveals the True Self 

Welcome to the world of art therapy, my friends. That client was me, and I unwittingly gave my therapist a treasure trove of information to unpack and process over the following few weeks with one simple display of creativity. Where I may have been unable to express through my command of the English language the existence of my obvious perfectionism, much less its origin, my mask spoke volumes about my state of mind and gave my treatment team a roadmap to my psyche.

How Art Therapy Plays a Role in Addiction Recovery

According to the American Art Therapy Association (arttherapy.org, 2017), art therapy can be used “to improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.”

When utilized in conjunction with a drug and alcohol treatment program, artistic exploration gives clients the opportunity to express themselves through visual and symbolic mediums and communicate in ways that enhance traditional talk therapy. In its traditional application, art therapy is conducted by a master’s level professional whose training has prepared them for the highest ethical standards and culturally proficient work with diverse populations.

How Art Therapy Plays a Role in Addiction Recovery

Creative expression has become a cornerstone of modern rehabilitation programs, giving clients a multi-dimensional platform for exploring the more obvious as well as previously uncharted facets of their emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Using both traditional and unconventional mediums, clients can communicate in a holistic way that enhances their wellbeing by reducing stress and depression, bolstering self-esteem, and providing a creative outlet.

As a bonus, creative expression is often the highlight in a day that is otherwise filled with introspection and the hard work of recovery.

What to Expect in an Art Therapy Session

Art therapy and creative expression take many forms, from conventional paint on canvas and pencil on paper, to song and dance, sculpture, vision boards, graphic journaling, roleplay, and mural design. For many, these sessions will be the first time one has explored the arts in sobriety which can feel both intimidating and empowering.

What to Expect in an Art Therapy Session

While working with clients at the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center of which I am the Creative Expressions Director, I am often met with resistance by those who have never explored the arts, don’t consider themselves creative, or whose only artistic frame of reference is inexorably linked to using.

I encourage them to discard their preconceived notions of artistic pursuits and lose themselves in the process. We begin with an open mind and ask that they allow the process to be directed by the same higher power that we ask to direct our recoveries. Often, those who think themselves the most artistically challenged produce the most introspective, insightful pieces.

The Benefits of Art Therapy

The benefits of art therapy and creative expression far outweigh the client’s initial discomfort at having to reach beyond his or her safety zone.  These sessions help to:

  • Improve self-management by learning to focus and work within a discipline.
  • Alleviate depression by lowering the heart rate and bolstering dopamine levels.
  • Improve communication skills.
  • Enhance problem-solving skills.
  • Build self-esteem.
  • Mitigate pain, stress, and irritability.
  • Provide a positive distraction.

I personally witnessed the transformation of a client who had, prior to entering treatment, never touched a guitar without first getting high. She was a songwriter who penned dark tales of woe while under the influence and was petrified to unlatch her guitar case in front of her fellow clients. With a great deal of positive encouragement, she plucked through her first song sober and immediately burst into hot, fat tears. She did it!

The Benefits of Art Therapy

She performed in front of a live audience without spontaneously combusting, and at that very moment she created a new, sober frame of reference in her chosen art form.

Music with Maddie* was born and became a regular addition to the weekly schedule. Maddie wrote several original pieces about the journey from addiction to recovery, and after she successfully completed treatment, she flew to California to audition for a nationally televised talent show.

I’ve seen clients pick away at the edges of repressed trauma through guided painting projects.  I’ve watched the most introverted clients blossom like May flowers during an improv session.  I’ve seen wishes manifest into reality after a client enthusiastically shared the vision board that she was loathe to complete with the group.  Clients have prepared entire meals for their housemates after serving as sous chef during one of my cooking demonstrations.  There are those who have changed the trajectory of their recovery, their education, and their career based on projects we embarked on during our Friday afternoons that are entirely devoted to creative expression.

Art Therapy has a Lasting Impact

And that brings us back to the aforementioned mask project. That client explored her perfectionism through group and individual therapy, worked the magic of the 12-steps on it, and is proud to say that she now finds both growth and comfort in imperfection. It’s also what makes her a true believer in the transformative properties of creative expression in all its manifestations.


*name changed to protect anonymity

Painting on Easel

Art in Recovery: Laura Mechling Revisits Roots, Gets Personal

Artist: Laura Mechling and her Mom


Artist: Laura Mechling

Instagram: @lalala____scribbles

Medium/Style: Pen & Ink, Simple Lines, Black on White, mixed media and collage work


Not everyone is an artist, or so it is that many people believe. True art, not only lies in the beholder, but is also a direct manifestation of each person’s authentic self. What we, as humans, can keep emotionally hidden will often cry out through detailed etchings and the brush strokes of time. Our painful truth and resolve come to life through art in recovery.

Why Laura Mechling

This is a featured interview on artist Laura Mechling. Although she is not in recovery her works are inspired by those close to her, friends and family who fight the disease of addiction every day. Mechling is a voice for many aspiring artists yet to be discovered, until they find themselves doing art in rehab. One of the many benefits of artistic expression during addiction treatment is the reconnection with the subconscious self.

Laura - Art in Recovery

Pushing Beyond Fear during Art Therapy

I would tell someone not to be intimidated to try something new,” Mechling mused during our interview. “I think people are scared of the unknown because we never know the outcome of taking risks. Testing out a new form of expression might allow room for growth and a sense of awareness of themselves and others,” she continued.

She also draws a correlation between creating art in rehab and the recovery process as a whole. Mechling explained, “Many people would rather stay in their comfort zone of living in old habits, however, allowing themselves the time to work through the process, there comes the opportunity for awareness on the other side.”

Greater awareness is one of the many aspects that can be both alarming and restorative to a person in recovery. In fact, it’s one of the essential life skills that support healthier decision-making during sober living.

Laura - Art Therapy

Inspiring Imagery Creates Healing in Others

Using visualization is a key component of the practice of mindfulness, a valued resource for those seeking ongoing and consistent refuge from the negativity that permeates the world. Mechling delivers visualization of thought in the places she’s been, the people she’s spoken with, and the moments that defy logic. To her, there’s beauty in them all.

Her mind’s eye is shared through articulate expressions through pen and ink, simple lines, black on white, mixed media and collage work.

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” Henri Matisse

Although art is meant to be seen and savored, for the artist it is merely an outpouring of either emotional release or thoughts channeled from a source unknown. Artists, like other creatives such as writers and musicians, can attest to their work as coming from divine intervention or another world.

Mechling reflected back on her earliest memories as an aspiring artist, and cites a special person near and dear to her as being a source of inspiration and support. “My mother was an art teacher and she would have mixed media available and allow me and my siblings to experiment at the kitchen table. But art really hit me in high school. I used all my free time to be in the art rooms.”

Our lady of Guadalupe (acrylic on velvet)

Drawing from Personal Experiences Is Artful

In order to get real with your art, you have to get to a place where “freedom of expression” comes from the soul, not your intellect. Mechling provides some of her favorite aspects of being in that sacred space of creating.

Art has always been an escape for me. I love the idea of creating something out of nothing.

When asked about a particular time in her life, when intention and focal points of her work had shifted, Mechling’s excitement was hard to contain. “I would say that my passion for art became strongest within the past seven years or so. I started looking at the world in a new light.”

This new light that Mechling mentioned is something that artists in recovery describe often as the metamorphosis of their healing.

Benefits of Artistic Expression during Addiction Treatment

Although Mechling is not a person in recovery, her message to those who are is resounding and parallels many of the reasons why more and more addiction treatment programs offer art therapy as a method for greater healing.

Once a person begins the recovery process, it can be likened to starting life over. It takes time, patience, and perseverance to remove old, self-destructive habits and replace them with newer, healthier ones.

Discovering how life feels again can be frightening and invigorating all at the same time. As emotions sway from one end of the spectrum to another, having the ability to find balance and inner peace is important. Art in recovery helps people find that balance while cultivating personal tranquility.

Laura - Art Therapy for Addiction

The Eight Ways to Reclaim Your Life through Art Therapy

In addition to the personal enjoyment that one gets by using charcoal, ink, watercolors or oil paint, clay, metal or other materials for the creation of art, the breadth of wellness it brings is astounding.

Art in Recovery provides:

  • Self-reflection
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-discovery
  • Emotional healing
  • Personal breakthroughs
  • Visual communication
  • Positive outlet
  • Relapse prevention

Using art to understand human emotion has been in practice for decades. Many years ago, psychologists and psychiatrists used art therapy in patients who were too young to verbally express their feelings. Known as incident drawing, children could draw pictures that would tell their story of trauma inflicted on them or someone close to them.

For the treatment of substance addiction, art therapy has a similar process from program to program and from person to person. It is in the details of the individual experience that decrees the differences.

Mechling Talks about Her Recent Change in Process

How inspiration comes is often hard to explain in words, though Mechling had no trouble revealing how it comes to be for her.

“I would have experiences and get a desire to recreate a moment on paper or draw a character from an interaction I had earlier that day. I can look at nature and take the pictures in my mind home with me and draw the memories in my own style.” She added, “I am fascinated with the ways children interact with the world around them. I am always thinking of ways I can draw the cycles of life and nature.”

Her strong connection with the human experience blossomed, redirecting her talent to Mother Earth. “This summer I have actually had a shift in my message that I want to convey as an artist,” she recalled attending two retreats, one in the mountains of Colorado and the other in Louisiana. “I now have a desire to create more authentic work that shows the beauty in nature as well as religious-inspired artwork. I feel that I am somewhat going back to the innocence of my childhood roots.”

Bird in Starry Night (acrylic on tree bark)

Get Up Close to Mechling Works of Art at the ECHO Recovery Art Show

Valentine (Acrylic on canvas)

To further showcase the importance of art therapy, ECHO Recovery is proud to continue this Art in Recovery blog series, featuring aspiring artists who found inspiration and recovery through art or who are inspired by those in recovery.

You too can support our featured artists and others by joining us for the first annual ECHO Recovery Art Show and Open Mic Night this November at the Bel Air Armory. There you’ll find a wide array of artwork to admire and purchase.

If you’re musically inclined, here’s your chance to participate in the Open Mic and share your singing, instrumentals, or poetry in motion. Just an art and music admirer? Attend and help make a difference to the addiction recovery community.

Why We Support Art in Addiction Recovery

Art Show

Event Date and Time: Sat, November 23, 2019 at 4:00 PM – 8:00 PM EDT

Location: Bel Air Armory 37 North Main Street Bel Air, MD 21014

Artists Sign Up: Register to display and sell your work. 30 spaces available $35 Fee for about 10×10 space* *tables for displays available upon request

Musicians Open Mic Sign Up: Day of Event Short run time performances only

Tickets: $5 Donation**, children under 10 years old are FREE **Proceeds will be going to ECHO Recovery for 1st week sober living scholarships.
There will also be snacks, drinks available for sale. Your ticket helps Bel Air’s local Artists and the Recovery Community

Purchase Tickets to The ECHO Recovery Art Show and Open Mic Night

Come support Bel Air’s local Artists and the Recovery Community. Together we can make a difference.