Some might argue that art therapy should welcome any national recognition. There are an estimated 5,500 registered art therapists nationwide compared to 106,000 psychologists. And 20 percent of art therapists are clustered in New York and New Jersey, meaning many patients around the country don’t have access to the treatment, according to the Art Therapy Credentials Board.
Most states don’t offer licenses to art therapists, meaning they can’t bill insurance. Often, private donors fund art therapists in states without licensure so they can work in schools, mental health clinics or hospitals.
The profession also receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts, an organization that may face additional cuts under the Trump administration. Funds from the NEA and the Department of Defense pay for a prominent program called Creative Forces, which offers art therapy to soldiers and veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
“We know how valuable it is, now it’s a matter of carrying out the studies to further the evidence of value,” said Dr. Sara Kass, a retired Navy captain who is trained as a family physician, who had planned to have the program at a dozen military sites by year’s end.
That said, Dr. Kass is concerned their funding will dry up. “I think we stand to lose a valuable tool,” she said.
Despite threats that members will quit, the leaders of the art therapy association still are open to working with the second lady. “If Mrs. Pence asks for and wants our support — which she hasn’t yet — of course, we are going to offer support and resources,” said Cynthia Woodruff, the executive director.
One of the biggest boons from Mrs. Pence’s support could be additional public and private funding for research. In a 2015 systematic review, the research arm of Britain’s National Health Service gave art therapy mixed results. It found that 10 out of 15 randomized trials show benefit to patients, but that overall, the quality of the research was low. The studies reviewed included adults and children with depression, cancer, sickle cell disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, the chairman of neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital, said he believes that art therapy may capitalize on what Alzheimer’s patients can still do, like drawing, so it can improve the sense of well-being. A few small trials suggest art therapy engages attention and improves neuropsychiatric symptoms, social behavior and self-esteem for Alzheimer’s patients, Dr. Chatterjee concluded in a 2014 review of existing evidence.
“The big problem with all of this is there’s no real, well-designed studies to show art therapy helps with people’s cognition or general well-being,” he said.
After Sonali Agrawal, of Washington, D.C., was given a diagnosis of leukemia at age 4 in 2012, she regularly went to Ms. Councill’s studio for years. As she had some of her chemotherapy infusions, she made a clay colander and a bird’s nest.
“Sonali made a lot of pieces of art in which she was caring for an animal and keeping an animal safe,” said Ms. Councill, founder of Tracy’s Kids, which has outposts in Washington, San Antonio, Baltimore and New York. “That had a lot to do with her wanting to feel safe.”
Sonali’s father, Dr. Manish Agrawal, an oncologist himself, thought it was “crazy to think she looked forward to coming to the hospital to get chemo.”
But she did. After watching his daughter’s treatment with art therapy, Dr. Agrawal said he felt the need to change how he practiced medicine. “We are so cut and dry,” he said of doctors, but “there’s a huge emotional toll. There’s real suffering.”
Dr. Agrawal conceded that he is not a Trump supporter, but Mrs. Pence’s support for art therapy, he said, “may be the silver lining.”
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