Art Therapy and Creative Mentoring: What’s the difference?

We caught up with Claire Parker, a HCPC registered Art Psychotherapist and TMC Creative Mentor, to talk about the differences between Art Therapy and Creative Mentoring.

A Q&A with Claire Parker


Firstly, can you tell us why art is used in both the practices of Art Therapy and Creative Mentoring?

Art is a powerful tool for self-expression and communication, recognised by both roles as Art Therapist and Creative Mentor. Art and creative activity provide an alternative means of communication both to self and others– especially when language or expression through words is a barrier. Making art together, and engaging in the creative process provides a calming and therapeutic experience.

Can you tell us about the practice of Art Therapy?

Art Therapy is a well-established form of psychotherapy, with its origins and practice beginning in the 19th century with psychiatric patients across Europe. The British Association of Art Therapists was founded in 1964. In the UK, the titles “Art Therapist” and “Art Psychotherapist” are protected by law. All UK art therapists must be state registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), and all registered Art Therapists can be found on the HCPC’s register. All practicing Art Therapists must be fully insured with enhanced DBS certification.

And who would deliver Art Therapy?

Art Therapy is delivered by Art Therapists (also known as Art Psychotherapists) who are trained to Masters level, and they have clinical supervision and placements over a two-year period before qualifying. Boundaries and safeguarding strategies are in place to ensure the sessions are well-supported and safe for the client, and Art Therapists will work in collaboration with other health professionals to provide a treatment plan for individuals.

So what is Creative Mentoring?

Creative Mentoring is a tried and tested model (pioneered by Derbyshire County Council’s Virtual School and The Amber Factory), and is now also delivered by The Mighty Creatives. It’s been developed in partnership with, and for, children and young people who are care experienced, who are looked after children, or for children who are registered as a Child In Need, who are at the greatest risk of not being in education, employment or training, struggling to engage in education, and are at risk of exclusion or social isolation.

What does a Creative Mentor do?

Well, Creative Mentoring can be facilitated by a number of professionals such as artists, teachers and coaches. Creative Mentors use their creative practice to refocus efforts away from negative preconceptions of education, to identify what it is the child or young person needs to help them to become ‘unstuck’. It facilitates inspiring experiences through the arts and through cultural experiences to support positive personal, social, and emotional development, as well as educational achievement. Creative activity is introduced as a practical way to explore thoughts and feelings about themselves and the world around them, to learn new skills, and to find a sense of purpose and agency.

But Creative Mentoring isn’t Art Therapy?

No, Creative Mentoring is not therapy and does not replace therapy-based interventions. The two are different, but the importance of relationships and the creative process are integral to the work of both.

Can you explain more about the difference between the two?

The difference lies in the depths to which the art, the creative process and the relationship between the Therapist and client or Mentor and mentee is used to resolve personal difficulties. Through Art Therapy the client may be supported to communicate or express a problem, trauma, illness, dysfunction, or anxiety. Symbolism, metaphor and the imagination play key roles in supporting an individual to explore conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings and ideas about their past, present and future. With the aim to resolve and make sense of internal and external conflicts.

Creative mentoring is not commissioned to resolve, unpick or reflect on any of these difficulties; it looks to build on what the child likes to do, wants to do, or is inspired creatively or artistically to do, promoting wellbeing and enjoyment. While Creative Mentors may observe and experience the therapeutic, calming, and stabilising value of making art and engaging in a creative process, Creative Mentoring is not therapy. Therapy may hold a different and sometimes difficult experience for young people – and they may be “put off” by Creative Mentoring sessions if it feels like therapy or is perceived by others as therapy.

Anyone who has suffered trauma and adverse childhood experiences, and in particular those who have experienced neglect and abuse can be re-traumatised by triggers. Without adequate training, attempts to uncover, overly express, embody, or make sense of past traumas could put the individual in a precarious and vulnerable position. A well-meaning exploration of “what is troubling you?” has the potential to lead to increased self-harm, substance or alcohol misuse or suicidal ideation, leaving carers, parents, staff and social workers with a half-opened “can of worms” to deal with.

What do you think is something to be aware of as a Creative Mentor?

The desire to work with vulnerable people and make a difference to their lives is a wonderful and rewarding career path to take. And, as a Therapist or a Creative Mentor, we will therefore want to help when someone is clearly struggling, with family, friendships, school or college. It’s important here to acknowledge that once you have developed a trusting creative relationship with a child or young person, they may discuss, disclose or want your advice on a difficult matter relating to their current circumstances or their past. Of course, it would not be ethical or appropriate to close down such a conversation; you must, however, safeguard yourself and your mentee, and resist being drawn in. Do ensure you refer on any concerns you have. Safeguarding procedures are firmly in place within schools and with The Mighty Creatives’ team as part of the service.

How would you summarise the differences between the role of an Art Therapist and a Creative Mentor?

Art Therapists work strategically with theory and clinical experience to inform and justify their actions and processes, often dealing with sensitive and difficult issues around mental health. Art therapy is typically more structured than Creative Mentoring, guiding a client through the creative process and helping them interpret and analyse their artwork as a means to communicate their internal and external thoughts and feelings.

Creative Mentors work from where the child or young person is at, accompanying them on a forward moving positive creative journey – to discover their potential and build on positive shared experiences. Creative Mentoring is more broadly focused on self-development, confidence, improving communication skills, and achieving creative goals.

What would you recommend to other TMC Creative Mentors or anyone thinking about becoming a Creative Mentor?

To make your work as a Creative Mentor safe and sustainable, I recommend:

1. Staying within your own area of expertise (as an artist not as a therapist).
2. Resist drawing out or getting drawn into ‘drama’ and trauma. Stay neutral.
3. Refer on and report worries or concerns. Your safety and that of the young people you work with is of paramount importance.

want to find out more about Creative Mentoring?

Find out more about our Creative Mentoring service and how it supports the most unheard children and young people in society to discover their sense of self and purpose.