The Role of Art and Music Therapies in Substance Abuse Treatment

The Role of Art and Music Therapies in Substance Abuse Treatment

From: Maria Cannon (

For many people, recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction isn’t only about kicking a bad habit. Often, mental and emotional health issues exist alongside an addiction. Those issues may have been present before the onset of substance use or may have arisen during active addiction. Either way, addressing mental health issues is essential if a patient is to achieve long-term recovery.

For some people in addiction recovery, music and art therapy are effective tools for working through personal troubles. But for someone who lacks experience with creative arts therapies, it may be difficult to understand how music and art aids in the treatment of mental health issues. If you’re curious how these therapies work and how to utilize them in substance abuse recovery, this information is for you.

What are art therapy and music therapy?

According to the British Association for Music Therapy, music therapy is the practice of using rhythm, melody, and tonality to create a musical language through which patients can express their emotions in a therapeutic setting. The music used in music therapy may be composed or improvised and instrumental or lyrical, and the therapy itself may be provided in individual or group sessions. Music therapists are trained professionals registered with the Health and Care Professions Council.

Like music therapy, art therapy uses self-expression to help people address emotional problems. The British Association of Art Therapists emphasizes that art therapy isn’t a recreational activity or an art lesson, and participants needn’t be skilled in art to benefit from it. Rather, art therapy is intended to help patients work through mental and behavioural health problems, disabilities, illnesses, or other issues. Like music therapists, art therapists in the UK are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council.

How can art and music therapy help during addiction recovery?

While the incorporation of art and music therapy programs into addiction treatment plans might seem new, its use goes back decades. As one study reports, art therapy has been used in the treatment of substance use disorders since the 1950s. Although music therapy appeared later, its role in addiction treatment began as early as the 1970s.

According to the same study published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing, both therapies have documented benefits when used as part of an addiction treatment plan. Art therapy has been shown to increase patients’ receptiveness to treatment, lessen shame and denial, assist in therapeutic communications, and motivate patients toward change. Music therapy, too, has a history of helping people through recovery. Music therapy promotes relaxation, decreases anxiety, depression, and stress, discourages relapse, and makes patients more willing to engage in treatment.

It’s difficult to document exactly how the arts promote recovery and personal development. However, if you have experience in the arts, the benefits that music and art bring to people in recovery shouldn’t surprise you. Art and music are healthy distractions that keep a person’s mind engaged so they’re not thinking about relapse. They give patients a method of relaxation other than drugs or alcohol, and fill time that might otherwise be spent on destructive thoughts and actions. Additionally, expressing oneself through art and music is a powerful way to build self-esteem, something that many people in addiction treatment struggle with. As a person regains faith in themselves, it’s easier to imagine a future free from drug and alcohol addiction.

How can art and music therapy be incorporated into substance abuse treatment?

Creative arts therapies alone can’t treat a substance use disorder. However, they can be highly effective as part of an overall treatment plan. Whether a patient is engaged in a 12-step treatment program, seeking treatment at an inpatient or outpatient facility, or pursuing sobriety on their own, there are ways to integrate arts therapy practices into recovery. Here are four suggestions for incorporating arts therapies into a recovery plan:

  • Find a creative hobby: Turning on the radio or doodling in a notebook might be enjoyable in the moment, but it’s unlikely to have lasting therapeutic value. Patients can give the arts a role in their recovery by adopting an artistic hobby. According to Psychology Today, hobbies help people structure their time, develop positive social connections, and cope with stress, all of which are highly important during addiction recovery.
  • Give the arts a place: Setting aside a specific place to engage in arts therapy helps patients commit their full mental faculty to the task at hand. The place doesn’t need to be a professional arts or music studio, but it should be a place that’s quiet and free from distractions. HomeAdvisor suggests people broaden their vision of the perfect hobby space, stating “Everyone deserves to have their own space for their passion project, be it a crafting station or simply a place to journal. Look around your home with a creative eye, and you’ll realize that much of what you need to create your ideal hobby workshop is already nearby and can be easily converted.”
  • Make time in the day: If creative pursuits are left as an afterthought, they’ll never happen. Motivation ebbs and flows, distractions crop up, and to-do lists grow. Instead of pursuing the arts when there’s time, make art and music therapy a scheduling priority during substance abuse treatment. Blocking out a specific time for an activity increases the likelihood of following through.
  • Work with a professional art or music therapist: While therapeutic in its own way, creating art or playing music isn’t equivalent to therapy. When a patient works with a trained arts therapist, the therapist uses different methods to elicit self-discovery and enable communication within a therapeutic framework.

There’s no single approach to healing from a drug or alcohol addiction. Rather, effective treatment relies on a combination of conventional treatments and alternative therapies to halt active addiction and give patients the tools they need to maintain sobriety over the long term. Whether you’re a practitioner or a patient, consider adding art and music therapy to your treatment approach.

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