August 14, 2020
To better understand how art therapists are responding to the Coronavirus pandemic and coping themselves, the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) conducted an online survey of art therapy professionals, educators, and students in May 2020. The findings offer a look into the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on art therapists, the clients they serve, as well as access to mental health care.
Art therapists are frontline “essential workers” during the Coronavirus pandemic. Half (53.1%) of art therapists surveyed said that they are continuing to go to work in person. Among those continuing to work in person, the vast majority (64.5%) said they were considered to be “essential workers” by their employers, many working in psychiatric hospital settings or outpatient mental health clinics. These art therapist “essential workers” reported their doubts about the safety measures and precautions in place at their job sites. When “essential workers” were asked whether social distancing guidelines were implemented adequately at their workplace, more than a third (37.1%) responded “no” or “somewhat,” or were “unsure.” Similarly, when asked whether there were procedures in place to disinfect art materials in their workplace, a quarter (25.2%) said “no,” “somewhat,” or that they were “unsure.”
“I was still going into work physically since the pandemic began, the virus then affected many people at my facility including staff and patients leading to an outbreak. I then contracted the virus myself, was out sick for about 2 weeks and then was laid off.”
Art therapists have stepped out of their comfort zones to get creative virtually. If offering teletherapy, art therapists are using video sessions about a quarter of the time (27%) and telephone calls for the remainder (73%). They told us they’re incorporating the art-making process into teletherapy sessions and connecting with their clients in new ways during this pandemic. Three in four (76.2%) survey takers offering teletherapy said they felt “more comfortable using technology during the crisis than previously.”
However, the adoption of technology has also resulted in many challenges, some unique to the art therapy profession. More than three quarters of art therapists said that they had difficulty viewing clients’ art-making processes (79.8%) and were challenged incorporating art materials (78.2%). Some art therapists reported that teletherapy has made it harder for them to connect with their clients, but also noted that some clients are hesitant to use teletherapy citing discomfort with technology or not having private space to talk.
“I hope that telehealth will become more readily available to everyone—clients and therapists who might not have given it a chance prior to this [pandemic]. I hope it becomes a viable option for individuals who live in remote areas, or who might have difficulty doing therapy in person. It might allow for more freedom of the clinician as well. Hoping that it will be a positive addition to our practice!”
Art therapists said that they were hearing about high levels of anxiety, stress and worries from clients. Nearly all art therapists (92.0%) surveyed reported that their clients were experiencing anxiety due to isolation during the Coronavirus pandemic, and two in three (62.7%) said that their clients raised these concerns frequently. Their clients are deeply concerned about their home and family lives. Most art therapists (85.7%) said that their clients were bringing up increased stress due to additional responsibilities at home, including home schooling children. In addition, clients were particularly worried about their existing medical illnesses or those of their loved ones: four in five (80.7%) art therapists reported it was discussed in sessions.
Financial anxiety was also evident in art therapists’ sessions with clients (83.4%) as well as among art therapists themselves. A quarter of art therapists (25.4%) surveyed said that they have lost their job, been furloughed or temporarily suspended, or their pay has been reduced. Nearly two in three (63.1%) said that they themselves have been experiencing anxiety as a result of financial uncertainty. Among art therapists who own small businesses such as private practices or art studios, nearly a third (28.5%) said that they received or applied for a small business loan through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Art therapy students and educators are experiencing challenges as art therapy education programs have pivoted to online learning, like most other academic institutions. For students, this has led to dramatic changes in not only how their hands-on, art-focused classes are being taught, but also to their internship programs. Notably, only about half (56.1%) of art therapy students said that they were satisfied with the quality of their online classes. Students were also extremely anxious about their path to graduation and what lay ahead for them in this Coronavirus economy.
“I have felt a severe lack of support or accommodations from my program at this time with unrealistic standards being set. I am a student and live with other people so I am unable to offer confidential sessions. My practicum site does not offer remote work so I was unable to finish my hours and was told I could not go to a new site to complete them so my graduation is delayed even though I have completed all class requirements for my degree.”
It is clear from the survey results that we are in the middle of a mental health crisis. Overall, access to mental health care has declined as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, according to the art therapists that took this survey. A third (32.2%) reported that their clients’ financial situation had changed and they no longer could afford therapy. And nearly a third (30.4%) reported that residential clients (e.g. in hospitals, nursing homes or correctional facilities) no longer have access to therapy.
While this survey was conducted in May 2020, prior to George Floyd’s killing, which re-ignited calls for racial and social justice, survey participants nonetheless identified these issues. One third (34.3%) of art therapists said their clients reported increased experiences of racism, bias and/or discrimination, and many discussed racism or systemic bias in their responses to open-ended questions.
“We are being desensitized to mass death, experiencing daily gaslighting and toxic optimism under the pretext of ‘we’re in this together,’ which glosses over the dehumanization that is occurring and used to oppress low income and minority communities struggling to cope and survive in a world actively hostile to their existence to tolerate the intolerable.”
To read more of the findings, please download “Art Therapy During A Mental Health Crisis: Coronavirus Pandemic Impact Report.”