Closing the Digital Divide in Art Therapy

There’s been some skepticism in the field of art therapy; popularity aside, the distractions that figure into drawing digitally have, until recently, kept the practice out of the art therapist tool kit.

A tactile experience that lacks warmth and texture would surely disconnect rather than integrate a client’s mind, body, motion and thought, right?

Or would it?

In this age of portability and advancing technology, future forward research by Dr. Beth Donahue, Antioch University Seattle graduate and full-time Art Therapy faculty, addresses the cultural disconnect and provides evidence for the efficacy of digital media in the field of art therapy.

Art THerapy Mandala“People are increasingly using digital media to express their creativity and make meaning,” observes Donahue, who used an experimental, non-concurrent, multiple baseline single subject research design for her dissertation to examine, specifically, whether screens get in the way of therapeutic mandala creation.

According to Donahue, it’s the flow of the mandala that encourages mindfulness and distress tolerance; skills taught within the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) intervention strategy and measured in relation to vicarious trauma & anxiety in Beth’s study.

As defined by DBT developer, Dr. Marsha Linehan, the term “dialectical” means a synthesis or integration of opposites. Beth walks this edge, providing Art Therapy MA students in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) and Couple & Family Therapy (CFT) programs, and their clients, tools that meet them where they live.

Pre- and post-mandala reports of anxiety were consistent among Beth’s “digital immigrants” and “digital natives;” research subjects born prior to 1965, and millennials alike, reported no decrease in treatment effect as a result of migrating from traditional to digital media mid-study.

Artistic talent and familiarity with the technology varied among Beth’s subjects, but across the board, the artistic limitations and technological advances of the platform reportedly “took the pressure off.”

“With the iPad, shapes can be designed with precision. And a client can ‘undo’ at any time,” explains Donahue.

“Using digital media in the art therapy session means that I have to let go of being a perfectionist,” reported one artist-subject in the efficacy study. And perhaps, as the Seattle skyline shifts and views of the Sound are further restricted, this reframe might be suggestive of a larger trend.

“Technology is a part of our clients’ future,” Dr. Donahue maintains. “Art Therapists will need to look for ways to embrace it, or risk being left behind.”

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