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Art therapy as a treatment for adults with learning disabilities who are experiencing mental distress: A configurative systematic review with narrative synthesis

Lookup NU author(s): Toni Harrison, Dr Simon Hackett



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2023 The Authors. This systematic review with narrative synthesis aimed to identify the forms of art therapy practice, types of studies conducted, outcomes reported, and experiences described in the literature for people with learning disabilities who also experienced mental distress. Papers in English, describing art therapy practice or therapeutic art interventions which addressed mental distress with adults with learning disabilities were included. Database searches were conducted using Healthcare Databases Advanced Search (HDAS), PubMed and American Psychological Association PsycInfo. Hand searches of grey literature were also conducted. Relevance and quality assessment ratings were carried out on each included paper. Results were discussed in terms of the four main questions of this review. Sixty-eight papers were included: 41 clinical practice and 27 research studies. Art therapy was most frequently provided on an individual basis, by qualified art therapists in community settings. Papers highlighted a broad range of adaptive practices, techniques and theoretical models used by practitioners when working with this population. Study outcomes varied, were predominantly behavioural and deficit focused. Data on the direct experiences of this population were limited but show promising areas for future research. This review identified that art therapy practice has evolved in response to diverse client needs and specific socio-cultural contexts across 40 years. Although there are no clearly defined models of individual or group art therapy for this population, practitioners employ their creative and therapeutic skills flexibly to meet this population's complex health and social needs. We recommend that future studies: employ robust and inclusive methodologies, measure resource-oriented outcomes and use established standards of reporting, to expand the evidence-base and to more accurately reflect the experiences of this population.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Power N, Harrison TL, Hackett S, Carr C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Arts in Psychotherapy

Year: 2023

Volume: 86

Print publication date: 01/11/2023

Online publication date: 06/10/2023

Acceptance date: 30/09/2023

Date deposited: 24/10/2023

ISSN (print): 0197-4556

ISSN (electronic): 1873-5878

Publisher: Elsevier Ltd


DOI: 10.1016/j.aip.2023.102088


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Funder referenceFunder name
Allied Health Professions Clinical Doctoral Fellowship
CAT CL-2014-05-001
Health Education England (HEE)
National Institute of Heath and Care Research (NIHR)
National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Integrated Clinical Academic (ICA) programme Senior Clinical Lecturer award
NIHR Integrated Clinical Academic Internship