by Michelle L. Dean
I am often asked how I became an art therapist and my best answer is that it was a marriage of passions: Art and working with others. I came to this realization at a young age. I had always been interested in art, drawing, painting, calligraphy, you name it, I was into it, if it was art. I became a certified Red Cross aquatics instructor in high school as a means to summer income and it eventually helped pay my way though college. I progressed to swim team coach and taught, and trained others to become lifeguards, and certified others in CPR and First Aid, eventually teaching and coaching at city pools year round. In addition to the hundreds of children I taught how to swim, I found myself most drawn to the challenge of helping those who had an intense fear of water (also known as, Aquaphobia). In my experience, I found many adults and children were fearful of the water because they had had a near drowning experience (a trauma) or their parents were especially anxious or frightened around water, sometimes they had had a bad experience or they just never learned to swim. Oftentimes there was intense panic around water. Don’t get me wrong, a healthy respect for water is very important, as it only takes 2 tablespoons of water to drown and statistically, more swimmers than non-swimmers drown each year. These facts aside, the fear and anxiety in these especially anxious parents was oftentimes paralyzing, for them and their children. This intergenerational anxiety was not lost on me and I still appreciate how parents’ fears, anxieties, and oftentimes, their traumas may be passed on to their children. I found this especially true when working at a rape crisis agency, where many of my clients were under the age of 12 and many more of them had had parents with significant trauma in their histories.
After four years, I earned a BFA in Illustration with an undergraduate certification in Art Therapy from The University of the Arts. After my senior year of college, I was hired as an activities therapist on the acute psychiatric unit, where I had completed my undergraduate practicum requirements. I continued to work for a year before returning to graduate school to study art therapy at Hahnemann University (now a part of Drexel University). For me, working through graduate school was both necessary and an honor, although it is not always possible or desired by some. I have been working in the field since 1992 and earned my master’s degree in 1996. During this time, I have met many wonderful people, both as clients and other fellow clinicians.
In general, art therapists are a passionate, inspired, and creative group of professionals. Many have come to this rewarding field from more traditional paths of art or psychology. Art therapy: a marriage of passions, as it were for many, myself included . Just as there are numerous avenues to enter into this work, there are many diverse schools of thought and theoretical orientations from which to practice as well as a myriad of settings in which to work. When asked for advice as to how to pursue a career in art therapy, I would suggest starting with an accredited school that fits you: your vision and passions.
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Part of this blog was originally posted to the ARTSBlog of The Americans for the Arts website.