Alternative Careers: How To Become An Expressive Arts Therapist In India

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11 min read

In Alternative Careers, Kool Kanya explores unique and lesser-known fields to give you insight into the less obvious, more adventurous world of livelihoods! In this guide, we’re discussing expressive arts therapy.

How often have we been told that we need to pick a staid, proper (read: boring) career path? After all, life is a standard progression… get a degree, get a good job, earn a decent salary and then work yourself into the ground until you retire.

But consider something a little different. What if you could choose a career that isn’t so staid and proper? One where you can help people and fulfill your own not-so-staid ambitions!

We have a career just like that to tell you about.

Ever since the mental health field has seen an upward spike in India, an adjacent career path has begun to find a tentative foothold. That path? Expressive arts therapy.

Table Of Contents

What Is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Expressive arts therapy is a form of psychotherapy involving the encouragement of free self-expression through the arts to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

Expressive arts therapy is different from talk therapy, in that it replaces talk with art as a medium to help the individual process emotions, reflect on, and share their feelings and thoughts. 

It’s an umbrella term used to describe both visual and expressive arts therapy, where an expressive art therapy practitioner uses various art forms to better their client’s mental and physical health. 

lahar mehta

This could include painting, sculpting, dancing, dramatics, music, body movement, writing and poetry.

This form of mental health support can help people access their subconscious thoughts and feelings through the less direct methodology of artistic expression. It can be especially useful when people find it difficult to say what they are feeling; particularly when they are experiencing confusing or distressing emotions

We spoke to two practitioners, Lahar Mehta and Manasi Chopra, to get a better understanding of the occupation and its applications.

Who Can Be An Expressive Arts Therapy Practitioner?

To become an expressive arts therapy practitioner, you need to be someone who genuinely cares for people’s mental health and well-being. You have to believe in the importance and need of focus on mental health, and be willing to advocate for the same.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of professional tools that can ease your way:

A Background In Psychology

This is preferred, but not always the case. Obviously, studying psychology at the school and university level can be beneficial. Expressive arts therapy is still at a nascent stage in India and since there is no governing or licensing body in place, people without a psychology degree practice it too.

An Inclination Towards The Arts

This is, without question, a requirement. Art in itself is an inclination, one that can be nurtured and developed. An individual’s ability to harness the artistic process of getting in touch with oneself, keeping the self vulnerable, and concentrating on expressing those vulnerabilities can be extremely useful to a mental health practitioner.

The Ability To Be Intuitive, Self-Aware And Empathetic

a physiological image of a human heart embroidered

A mental health practitioner, whether of the regular or art therapy variety, ought to have these qualities. By understanding one’s own processes to be transparent with oneself, a practitioner can better intuit and identify another’s.

Like in any therapy session, one must be present and given to the spontaneity of the session, as therapy and clients do not come with a checklist of problems. A practitioner should be able and willing to take any new developments and changes head-on.

Self-awareness can ensure that a practitioner does not insert themselves into the client’s mindscape. It can also help identify and reign in one’s own triggers.

Empathy, of course, is valuable across the board, in any field. But in a mental health professional, it is paramount. One can build on one’s empathic abilities through workshops, self-education and practise.

The Desire To Through The Therapy Process Yourself

Someone who is open to going for therapy themselves is more likely to understand and emulate the non-judgemental attitudes and climate of a therapeutic environment.

It takes practise to refine it, and if one is themselves burdened or unwilling to debrief, then it may cause a bottleneck of one’s own mental health. Thus, being open to the process of therapy can help a practitioner practice better.

How To Become An Expressive Arts Therapist In India?

To become an expressive arts therapist in India, and a good one at that, here’s what you need to do.

a woman sits facing the camera, there are painbrushes in her hand

Qualifications Required

Experts suggest studying psychology in your undergraduate studies to build a strong foundation in mental health. Follow it up with a Master’s in Psychology to be able to get a license and become a mental health practitioner. 

A formal education in both psychology and art therapy, or a full-fledged Master’s Degree in Art Therapy or Expressive Arts Therapy is of value. While these courses are not available in India at present, a number of foreign universities offer these degree programmes. 

However, you can also seek a P.G. diploma course in Expressive or Creative Arts Therapy to learn the modalities of the concept, and boost your profile. 

There are practitioners who are either trained counsellors, or have trained to become art therapists from institutes offering diploma courses in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Delhi. 

How To Start Out In India

To gain professional experience, you can begin by interning or apprenticing under the supervision of art therapy facilitators. This will give you an opportunity to observe sessions, and get an in situ understanding of how a practitioner can approach, guide and engage with those who seek them out.

You can then work under peer supervision and attend different kinds of arts-based therapy workshops to up-skill yourself and learn different approaches until you’re confident to practice formally.

It is also recommended that as a mental health professional (or an aspiring one!), you go for therapy on a regular basis yourself. This can help you keep your mental space clear and focussed when it comes to your work.

And of course, like in any other career, practice is key to making your arts therapy practice perfect!

(Continue reading below.)

What Does An Expressive Arts Therapist Do?

In the same way talk therapists use speech as a medium to draw out information, identify patterns, ask questions and guide a patient towards a possible resolution; an expressive arts therapist uses artistic expression to induce, stimulate and help a client.

An expressive arts therapist will use minimal talking, instead borrowing exercises from artistic mediums. This will depend on the medium a practitioner chooses. For example, a theatre-based practitioner will adapt theatre exercises, and a canvas-based artist will use drawing-related exercises.

manasi chopra

These exercises work in the same way as talk therapy, helping an individual experience a shift in perspective and guiding them towards a better state, mental health-wise. 

But unlike talk therapy, the modalities do not depend on a client’s conscious expression, instead focussing on subconscious expression.

Manasi says, “When you are engaging with the arts, you are not directly conscious of the things that you are accessing and expressing. The veneer of artistic expression allows the free flow of what one might ordinarily keep closeted.”

An art therapy session usually lasts for 45 mins to an hour. 

Here is a simple illustration of an activity in an expressive arts therapy session:

The therapist will offer the client a prompt, asking how they feel about it, where in the body do they hold it, and how they would externalise it. Then, the therapist and the client look at it together to understand what the expression means.

For example, in theatre-based art therapy, a practitioner might use a method called free play. Herein, a free play area is marked out, and upon entering it, the client is allowed to freely assume characters and play them out.

A trained therapist would be able to understand how the characters assumed play into what their client is experiencing mentally. They would pick up on patterns and identify the larger picture of a client’s mind.

a woman sculpts a face out of clay

Upon exiting the free play area, the therapist and client would then process the characters and characteristics that came out in the free play exercise. In this, the therapist will actively talk about the play, its story and its characters, rather than trying to instigate a client into making direct connections with their real-life experiences on the spot.

An art therapist can choose the mix and develop methodologies and modalities depending on a client’s situation and needs, rather than simply sticking to a single medium of expression.

What Is The Scope In India?

So where can an art therapist practice? And how do they expand their horizons, and their practice?

Expressive arts therapists can work in collaboration with psychologists, psychiatrists, in hospitals, with NGOs, schools, wellness centres, or start their own practice.

Some art therapists also dive into indirect applications of the knowledge, while others go on to study it further abroad, where licensing is in place. 

How To Find Clients

First, an expressive arts therapist must understand and identify who their clients could be, and where they would seek help.

For example, a practitioner may find clients who are simply inclined in the arts taking classes or learning a form of art, and can advertise in spaces where such classes are held. Or they might find clients seeking alternative therapeutic methods online, by creating profiles on websites such as Practo, or creating a social media profile (Instagram or Facebook) for their practice.

One can also find professional mental health networks, or build their own, to generate referrals from talk therapists, and vice versa.

How Much Does An Expressive Arts Therapist Earn?

An expressive arts therapy facilitator can charge anything between ₹1000 to ₹2000 per personal session, depending on their experience and years into the career. 

a woman is dancing

If you’re at the top of your game, having worked for a number of years and with a diverse range of clients, you could charge between ₹4,000 to ₹6,000 per personal session. 

Art therapy practitioners conducting workshops between 3 days and a week usually charge ₹5,000 to ₹10,000 per participant. This covers the cost of intensive, personalised engagement between practitioner and client. 

Expressive arts therapy is a great option for a practising mental health professional who wants to explore new methodologies. One could also turn it into a full-time career, if one is so inclined. 

However, as it is with art and mental health support at large, one needs to be in it for the promotion and advocacy of mental health and not just for the money. It requires you to be vulnerable yourself, to come face to face with your own emotions before you go on to help others with theirs.

With all this in mind, and all the information we have put together in this guide, we hope you will venture into the world of alternate career paths armed with the knowledge and skills to succeed!

You’re invited! Join the Kool Kanya women-only career community where you can network, ask questions, share your opinions, collaborate on projects, and discover new opportunities. Join now.

Priyanka is a poet, a feminist, and an Ophelia conspiracy theorist. She can often be found yelling "Pray you, mark!" at rooms full of condescending men in positions of power. She believes that there is a tremendous dearth of tenderness in this world, and that we need to shift perspectives from acute compassion to chronic empathy. Trust her, she's learned that the hard way. She spends her life drinking coffee, playing with eyeshadow, and ricocheting between bawler and baller.

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