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© 2019 by Kimberly Gibson, MS, ATR, LPCC.

  • Kim Gibson, MS, ATR, LPCC

Five ways Art Therapy can help with self harm behaviors

Art therapy can be an effective type of therapy to address self-harm behaviors in clients. This blog post will define self-harm behaviors & statistics. It will also explore the reasons why people self harm & how therapy can help. Finally, it will present five ways that art therapy can be an effective intervention.  

What is Self-Harm or Self-Injury Behavior?

Self-harm or self-injury is the act of intentionally injuring one’s self to find relief from emotional or psychological distress. Self-harm is a deliberate, controlled act and can take the form of cutting, burning, or preventing wounds from healing naturally. Self-harm behavior is not usually based on suicidal intent; people who self harm are not trying to die.

How common is self-harm behavior?

Self-harm behaviors occur in private and so it is hard to pinpoint exact stats. Estimates vary widely from 3% to 38% in adolescents and young adults. Studies conducted with university students demonstrated a 17% lifetime prevalence rate in this population, with 13% reporting that they had engaged in self-harm more than once. Studies of high school students indicated prevalence rates of self-harm ranged from 13% to 24%.

Why do people self-harm?

There are several theories. One theory is that self-harm behaviors are an attempt to gain relief from emotional pain. The urge to hurt oneself may start with overwhelming anger, frustration or pain. When a person is not sure how to deal with emotions or learned as a child to hide emotions, self-harm may feel like a release. It can increase the body’s endorphins, thus raising one’s mood & leading to a feeling of pleasure. This makes self harm a difficult cycle to break. Or if a person doesn’t feel any emotions, they might cause pain to feel something “real” to replace emotional numbness. A second theory is that self-harm behaviors are an attempt to get help. Usually, it is a combination of the two; an attempt to cope with difficult emotions while expressing a need for support. 

How can therapy help?

The first step in therapy is for the therapist to create a safe place and build therapeutic rapport. This is done by actively listening to the client without judgment and allowing the client to set the goals & the agenda for the sessions. This means working at the client’s pace. The next step is to help the client provide information & history to best understand what the client is experiencing. Self-harm, in of itself, is not a diagnosis in the DSM-IV manual. It is considered a symptom and often occurs with other diagnoses, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse. A detailed history can help establish a treatment plan that can address the self-harm behaviors and any additional issues that are going on. I create my treatment plans with the client’s direct input. I want the goals on their plan to be the ones that they want to work on. I don’t want therapy to be a mystery; I want my clients to feel empowered in the process.  

     As a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC), I’ve trained in several different types of traditional talk therapies that can be helpful with self-harm behaviors. For example, the psychodynamic model can be used to help explore past experiences and emotions. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is useful when a client needs to learn how to recognize and challenge negative thoughts patterns. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) interventions can be used to help a client learn coping skills, including Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation. In addition to pulling techniques from traditional talk therapies, my prefered way of addressing self-injury behaviors is through art therapy interventions.

      As a registered art therapist (ATR), I know art can be a productive way to acknowledge & address the challenging emotions that one feels before self-harming.  Art making can also offer someone an immediate, specific tool to use when an urge to self-harm strikes. One can be productive rather than destructive. Below is a list of five ways art therapy can be an effective treatment in self-harm behaviors.

Five ways art therapy can help with self-harm behaviors

1) The art-making process itself can be healing. Rather than self-harming, clients can use artwork to express and manage intense emotions that feel overwhelming. Even if a client doesn’t have words for his or her emotions, just expressing them through art can be a powerful start.

2) Cutting and self-harm can feel out of control. Creating art can be the opposite. Clients experience a sense of control while creating artwork. A client gets to decide what to create, what materials to use, how to make something and what to say about it. 


3) After the artwork is created, a client can begin processing the work & actively explore the thoughts and feelings with the help of a trained art therapist The therapeutic relationship combined with making the artwork, plus reflecting on it, can help clients learn how to express & tolerate overwhelming feelings, which is often a treatment goal.

4) Art making is an immediate coping tool. One can make marks on a page instead of harming oneself. One can choose to be destructive and harm their artwork (tear up a page, destroy a clay vessel) rather than one’s self.  

5) In addition to learning how to use art when one feels an immediate urge to self-harm, an art therapist can also help a client learn how to use art daily for distraction, relaxation and stress management. In other words, learn to use art to manage & cope with future urges.  

Please reach out if you require a counselor and art therapist in the Los Angeles (Playa Vista) area or if you have any questions about self-harm treatment in a private practice setting. In addition to helping clients directly, I also enjoy working with parents who may not know the best way to support their son or daughter as they are struggling. Please email or call if I can be of help kim@kimberlygibsoncounseling.com or 310-554-8670.