Case study

Art therapist — Sarah McSherry

Sarah works as an art therapist within an NHS community team for people with learning disabilities in West London. Discover her top tips for getting into art therapy

How did you get your job?

I originally graduated with a BA (Hons) Fine Art from the University of Derby, before later completing postgraduate training in art psychotherapy at Roehampton University. I also have more than eight years' experience working and volunteering in various services within third sector settings, in roles ranging from support worker to services manager.

After gaining the MA Art Psychotherapy, I looked for work in the NHS as I'd completed a clinical placement within an NHS mental health service. I think my previous experience helped me gain my current role as I had an understanding of the issues that impact the client group I work with, as well as the dynamics of working for commissioned services and managing teams.

What's a typical working day like?

My days are made up of meetings and clinical work. I see people for art therapy, either in groups or individually, in the art room I use or in community-based settings. If I have new referrals I'll spend some time gathering information and arranging assessment appointments.

I'm currently working with our music therapist to develop ideas around joint therapeutic work to support individuals with multiple and profound disabilities, and also with our direct team as part of a creative reflective practice approach.

Although I'm based within the psychological services department I have meetings with the wider team, which includes social workers, psychiatry, nursing and case co-ordinators, on areas such as clinical governance, service development or service user focus.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I love being able to connect with people in a way that can be non-verbal but extremely expressive and meaningful. This approach gives people the opportunity to explore their own narrative in a creative and safe place, and build a confidential relationship with me.

What are the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is developing other people's understanding of the profession. Often people have misconceptions that art therapy is something people do as a nice pastime. However, it's a form of psychotherapy which uses artistic expression alongside verbal dialogue, and art therapists must be registered with the HCPC to practise.

How relevant is your degree?

Getting an accredited postgraduate professional training qualification is essential if you want to practise as an art therapist. The Roehampton course incorporates theory-based work, clinical placements, research and experimental learning. Alongside the course, all trainees undertake their own personal therapy throughout the duration of training.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

My career as an art therapist is just beginning and there's still so much to understand in terms of my practise. I'm currently developing the support service for current art therapy trainees as a clinical placement.

My long-term ambitions are to publish findings, experiences or case work from my own practice within the field of learning disabilities and art therapy, and to develop a private practice.

What's your advice for others interested in art therapy?

  • Don't underestimate the impact that therapeutic training has on all parts of your life. The experiential elements of the course, clinical work and personal therapy can be difficult as they require a truthful, authentic reflection of ourselves, our relationships and life experiences.
  • Get work experience, paid or voluntary, in a relevant area, as clinical hours are a requirement for applying for the course.
  • Be prepared to create work opportunities for yourself after the training has finished. Try to build connections and network whilst on clinical placements as they could develop into a work opportunity.

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