Christy Pagels, M.A. in Art Therapy Counseling

How to start an art therapy practice

by Christy Pagels ’06, LPC, ATR-BC

Though I’ve been doing art therapy and counseling for about a decade, this past year has been a real learning experience for me, as I started my private practice. Of course, each job and even each client I worked with in that time has taught me much about being a therapist, but making this career change has been a different kind of challenge and opportunity for growth.

First a little on my background. I am originally from Virginia and did my undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia; I subsequently moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, where I earned my M.A. in Art Therapy Counseling from Marylhurst University. My first job out of graduate school really emphasized the art therapy side of my education, as I worked as an art therapist at an alternative school for students with learning differences, anxiety and ADHD. I then worked for five years at a day treatment for adolescent boys who had sexually offended. In that job, I had to work to pull my art therapy skills into an environment that was heavily focused on cognitive behavioral therapy. My favorite part of that job was a twice-weekly art therapy group that I created. It was a powerful group where I was able to help support the emotional growth and identity development of adolescents who had put up many barriers. Upon moving back to Virginia, I worked as an in-home therapist, helping me grow my skills working with a wider age range of clients.

Last year, I started my private practice. I concentrate on supporting emotional growth and regulation with pre-teens, adolescents and young adults. I have some clients who have sought me out specifically for art therapy, some who initially contacted me based on my LPC but who are also interested in art therapy, and some who are solely interested in more of a traditional cognitive behavioral approach. I enjoy many things about being in private practice, most notably I find the challenge of working with a wider range of clients enjoyable and interesting. The ability to set my own hours is also a large perk at this time in my life.

While I am learning more about private practice each day, I do want to share a few initial things that this experience has emphasized for me:

1. Build your experience elsewhere first.

When I was in graduate school, my professors urged building your experience in other organizations before trying to “hang out your sign” and open a business, and the longer I worked in the field the more I came to understand this wisdom. While organizations can come with their own internal problems and bureaucracy, they also come with a support system in place. You bounce ideas off and decompress with colleagues or supervisors. Many organizations can also give you the ability to really concentrate in growing in your work with a specific population and offer great training opportunities. You will have to build this support network and pay for all your own trainings when you go off on your own.

2. Be careful and ethical in how you present your business.

As art therapists, we often need to educate others about who we are and what we do. This starts in how you present your business. Take time to explain your credentials. Unfortunately, the term art therapy is widely used in situations where it is not actually describing art therapy, making it even more important for you to describe your credentials and the field of art therapy accurately. Be careful about what terms you use: for example, do not call yourself a counselor unless you also have an LPC, as there are regulations about this from state licensing boards.

3. Form consult groups and find a supervisor.

Having colleagues to discuss your work with is important and helps to maintain the ethical imperative of confidentiality. I made the mistake of thinking that I could wait to find a supervisor and peer consult group until after I started seeing clients. Then my first private practice session was with someone in crisis, and I immediately felt the need to discuss it with someone in order to check out my response, especially as my responsibility and actions in outpatient are different than in my past work settings in-home or at mandated day treatment. Luckily, I had a colleague that I was able to contact quickly to consult with, but it would have been easier if I already had a local consult group or supervisor in place. I have since been able to form a consult group with an LPC and psychologist with whom I share a waiting room, as well as join a peer consult group with art therapists in the area.

4. Reach out to your connections and form new connections.

I avoid using the term networking because I used to identify as being bad at networking. I saw networking as an intimidating process of reaching out to strangers or being stuck in a room at some sort of event and trying to make small talk. As an introvert, those sorts of situations are intimidating to me. However, reaching out to people you already know is part of networking, and it’s the most effective way of doing it. Make sure that social workers and other therapists you have worked with in the past know that you are now in private practice and that you would appreciate referrals. Make time to go for coffee or lunch with fellow therapists that you have worked with in the past or who do similar work to you. You get to learn about how others are managing their practices, and you keep yourself in their mind for referrals. Keep your business cards on you in case you meet individuals who are interested in knowing more about your work. I had been in Charlottesville for less than two years when I started my private practice, and reaching out to the people I had formed even passing connections with during that time really helped build my practice. Also look for local groups of therapists; joining a local counselors group and becoming a member of the Virginia Art Therapy Association have aided me in making connections in the field quickly.

5. Be patient with yourself.

We all need reminders of this in general as art therapists. It is easy to think that we haven’t done something as well as we possibly could have. Starting a private practice is a huge leap, especially as we don’t tend to study business in school. It can take a while to figure out how you can best advertise in your area, form a steady client base, learn new practice management software, get your intake paperwork tailored how you want it, and figure out insurance (if you are able to accept it). Give yourself a break! Remind yourself that it has taken time to learn other skills in your life, and this is a new skill that is different from being a therapist in another setting. Honestly, this reminder is here mostly for myself, as I know I still have a lot to learn about private practice.

Christy Pagels earned her M.A. in Art Therapy Counseling from Marylhurst University in 2006. She is current president of the Virginia Art Therapy Association. This article originally appeared on the VATA blog; it is cross-posted here with permission.