BACKGROUND: Mental health problems account for almost half of all ill health in people under 65 years. The majority are non-psychotic (e.g. depression, anxiety and phobias). For some people, art therapy may provide more profound and long-lasting healing than more standard forms of treatment, perhaps because it can provide an alternative means of expression and release from trauma. As yet, no formal evaluation of art therapy for non-psychotic mental health disorders has been conducted.
AIM: This review aimed to evaluate evidence for the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of art therapy for non-psychotic mental health disorders.
METHODS: Comprehensive literature searches for studies examining art therapy in populations with non-psychotic mental health disorders were performed in major health-related and social science bibliographic databases including MEDLINE, EMBASE, The Cochrane Library, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), PsycINFO, Allied and Complementary Medicine Database (AMED) and Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts (ASSIA) from inception up to May 2013. A quantitative systematic review of clinical effectiveness, a qualitative review to explore the acceptability, relative benefits and potential harms, and a cost-utility analysis of studies evaluating cost-effectiveness of art therapy were conducted.
RESULTS: In the quantitative review, 15 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were included (n = 777). Meta-analysis was not possible because of clinical heterogeneity and insufficient comparable data on outcome measures across studies. A narrative synthesis reports that art therapy was associated with significant positive changes relative to the control group in mental health symptoms in 10 out of the 15 studies. The control groups varied between studies but included wait-list/no treatment, attention placebo controls and psychological therapy comparators. Four studies reported improvement from baseline but no significant difference between groups. One study reported that outcomes were more favourable in the control group. The quality of included RCTs was generally low. In the qualitative review, 12 cohort studies were included (n = 188 service users; n = 16 service providers). Themes relating to benefits of art therapy for service users included the relationship with the therapist, personal achievement and distraction. Areas of potential harms were related to the activation of emotions that were then unresolved, lack of skill of the art therapist and sudden termination of art therapy. The quality of included qualitative studies was generally low to moderate. In the cost-effectiveness review, a de novo model was constructed and populated with data identified from the clinical review. Scenario analyses were conducted allowing comparisons of group art therapy with wait-list control, group art therapy with group verbal therapy, and individual art therapy versus control. Art therapy appeared cost-effective compared with wait-list control with high certainty, although generalisability to the target population was unclear. Verbal therapy appeared more cost-effective than art therapy but there was considerable uncertainty and a sizeable probability that art therapy was more clinically effective. The cost-effectiveness of individual art therapy was uncertain and dependent on assumptions regarding clinical benefit and duration of benefit.
CONCLUSIONS: From the limited available evidence, art therapy was associated with positive effects when compared with a control in a number of studies in patients with different clinical profiles, and it was reported to be an acceptable treatment and was associated with a number of benefits. Art therapy appeared to be cost-effective compared with wait-list but further studies are needed to confirm this finding as well as evidence to inform future cost-effective analyses of art therapy versus other treatments.
STUDY REGISTRATION: The study is registered as PROSPERO CRD42013003957.
FUNDING: The National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme.
Limited by heterogeneity of included studies which precluded a meta-analysis.
Art therapy is not a commonly considered approach and, compared to other non-medical treatments, is likely of relatively limited availability. As with other non-medical treatments, in many settings cost could well be a barrier. Nonetheless, this study shines a light on the potential for helping our patients in a non-pharmacological approach. Issues of detailed 'best practices' and long-term outcomes will need elucidation as well.
The overall quality of the studies is rather weak -- I don't think there's enough here to influence many practice patterns.