The most influential and impactful group on the art therapy profession is educators: the professors and leaders of art therapy graduate programs. Educators shape the minds and skills of future art therapists, thus shaping the culture and vision of the art therapy field.
As fledgling graduate students, we don’t know what we don’t know. We enter our graduate schools and trust what we are told. We trust that what we are taught will be enough.
Educators have an opportunity to not just teach the fundamentals of art therapy, but to shape the norms of how we practice and live as art therapists.
There are pivotal topics that I would love for educators to teach future art therapists (If you were taught these in your graduate program, please drop a comment and name your program, professor, or class. I want to uplift the people doing this work!).
Caseload Norms and Burnout
Education about burnout needs to expand from what therapists can do for themselves to examining and addressing the causes of burnout (I wrote an entire essay about how “self care is misleading”).
We can teach therapists to identify the demands of being an art therapist (such as the emotional and mental demands) and what are appropriate limits.
In my opinion, anything above 20 clients a week is INCREDIBLY stressful. Let’s start teaching that above 20-25 clients is abnormal. Let’s stop saying that “some people can do it.” This implies that if someone is “strong enough” or “resourced enough” or “grounded enough” they can work at that level - and anyone else is lacking. Instead, let’s claim the reality: seeing too many clients a week negatively impacts a therapist's quality of life and is not sustainable for a long-term career.
Let’s name the SYSTEMS and NORMS that are hurting us, instead of making therapists feel like they are the ones at fault for not being able to carry such heavy loads.
Let’s train therapists to not accept high caseloads as the norm and not to create that reality for themselves (you can read about how we subconsciously recreate systems of oppression in our own private practices here).
It is a sad reality that many therapists will have to see an overwhelming amount of clients every week. So let’s talk about how to cope with that reality (response art, great supervision and consultation, planned vacations, etc.). Let’s also talk about how long someone can carry that emotional load. Let’s look at how someone determines when it is time to leave a job and how to do it professionally.
Career Possibilities and Business Fundamentals
Let’s teach new graduates about the possibilities after graduate school. While I was given a board overview, I think specific, concrete real-world examples would have been helpful. As we do that, we can talk openly about the salary norms and caseload norms (as mentioned above).
We can encourage and teach new students how to negotiate for higher pay or better benefit packages. Given that it can be difficult to find jobs advertised as “art therapist,” art therapists often hold a scarcity mindset. They feel grateful to have found a job and don’t want to compromise their one lucky opportunity by negotiating. We can let art therapists know it is okay and standard to negotiate for pay.
Given how limited art therapy jobs can be, art therapists often have to squeeze themselves into different job titles and positions. Some find they have to “fight” to provide art therapy.
As art therapists, we are creative badasses. Our creativity is an incredible advantage. We can teach students that they can create their own private practices, organizations, and programs. Let’s provide basic business fundamentals so that art therapists feel empowered and knowledgeable to put their business ideas into action.
I understand that it may not be possible to offer an entire class in graduate school, but it could be incorporated into an existing class. We can provide class assignments where they imagine what their ideal private practice would look like. We can share real-world examples of art therapists doing it (if you’re a graduate professor, I will happily talk with your class about my experience of building my private practice).
Bridge from Graduation to ATR
Let’s be EXTREMELY clear on what will be required when a student graduates. It can be incredibly stressful to step into the “real world.” There was no preparation provided to me in graduate school. I had to find mentors and supervisors to figure it out on my own (which I write about in Starting a Private Practice as a New Graduate).
Let’s educate our graduates so they are informed on the actual time and cost of obtaining their ATR-P and eventual ATR (or if they choose to go the REAT route). For example, determining how many direct client hours and the cost of supervision. Let’s provide them with mentors who can help them make a plan BEFORE they graduate. Even better, let’s have a portion of their last semester dedicated to researching and constructing a specific plan. The more we can provide clear information, the more therapists can go out confidently and with plans that work for them.
I have plenty more ideas, so stay tuned for part 2! In the meantime, I would love to hear what you think educators should be teaching future art therapists. Please let me know in the comments.