Can you define “art therapy?” More specifically, can you define it well enough to criminalize the unauthorized practice of it?

The state Senate thinks it can.

This coming Wednesday, the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee continues its hearing on Senate Bill 535, to establish state licensure of art therapists. (The bill passed the Senate on March 15.)

If SB 535 becomes law, it will be a misdemeanor for any individual to practice art therapy for pay without a state license. For corporations, it would be a felony.

What is art therapy? According to Art Therapy Journal, the practice originated in the 1940s when artist Adrian Hill, being treated for tuberculosis, thought to teach art to his fellow sanitarium patients as a means of therapy. Early practitioners were not therapists, but artists who realized that the artistic process had various therapeutic uses. Only much later did art become adopted as a treatment method by therapists, as the journal recounted.

SB 535 assumes, contrary to the history of art as therapy, that highly specialized training is an essential foundation for blending art and therapy. To get a license under the bill, one would have to obtain a master’s or doctorate in art therapy and accumulate “not less than 2 years, with a minimum of 2,000 hours, of supervised experience in art therapy.”

One need not try to practice unlicensed psychology to fall afoul of the law under this bill, but merely use integrate basic psychotherapeutic principles into the creative process for the purpose of helping people feel better or cope with stress or trauma.

Not all of these techniques are a part of a new, highly specialized scientific field. “Throughout recorded history, people have used pictures, stories, dances, and chants as healing rituals,” a major 2010 review in the American Journal of Public Health concluded.

No doubt there are highly trained specialists who can do wonders with art therapy and who deserve handsome compensation for their services. The problem with this bill, as with so many licensing bills, is its assumption that anything short of the work of the most highly trained expert is so dangerous that it must be banned.

Importantly, SB 535 does not ban the unlicensed practice of psychology. That is already illegal. The bill makes it illegal to apply the principles of psychotherapy to art instruction.

In the beginning of this legislative session there was hope that lawmakers would reduce licensing burdens. Part of that hope came from the huge shortage of licensed substance abuse counselors relative to demand.

New Hampshire’s opioid addicts are going without treatment in part because state licensing requirements have kept the supply of counselors artificially low. Senate Bill 487, which mandates that the state waive licensing requirements for substance abuse counselors who have licenses from other states, was, surprisingly, not killed by the Senate. It is slowly making its way through the House.

But despite shortages in other fields, the Senate has killed bills that address similar problems. This week the Senate killed House Bill 1217, which would have reversed the mandate, passed in 2016, that all school nurses have a bachelor’s degree. Nurses in any other setting need only an associate’s degree. School officials testified that they face serious nursing shortages and that the bachelor’s requirement has made the problem worse. They were no match for the lobbying power of Big Nurse.

And as this Unnamed Newsletter has noted before, the Senate killed House Bill 1685, which would have reformed the occupational licensing process to make it less burdensome.

Maybe, like a Rolling Stones fan who unwittingly hopped into an Uber driven by a Beatles obsessive, you’re tired of hearing this tune. Fine. We’ll cue up something cooler. In just a second. First, we’ll remind you that, unlike John Lennon’s songwriting ability, occupational licensing remains a huge issue, as the number of bills dealing with it suggests. And highlighting its problems is the only way for people to understand how damaging licensing can be. Roughly a third of the U.S. workforce faces occupational licensing requirements. That figure was only about 5 percent in the 1950s. By contrast, about 11 percent of the workforce is unionized.

Licensing can be a significant barrier to upward mobility and economic opportunity. In New Hampshire, legislators continue to block reform and pass new requirements, making these problems worse. Relief typically comes only when a crisis develops, as in the case of licensed substance abuse counselors.

There are real consequences to inaction. Schools are short of nurses. Opioid addicts get worse while waiting for counselors. But requirements keep being piled on, as if everything is fine.

Things aren’t fine, and they’re getting worse. Without some action by legislators to control the growth of these requirements, they will continue to spread like a plague of job-eating, wage-eroding, state licensed locusts.

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