What is Clinical Psychology?

Published on: 08 May 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW
two women sitting on pink sofa

When you imagine a clinical psychologist, you perhaps picture a person dressed in tweed, meticulously taking notes while across the desk in a cluttered office filled with books, on a couch, lies a patient pouring out their feelings. While this has been the image we’ve seen of clinical psychologists in pop culture, movies like Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind, it probably shouldn’t be. But what is clinical psychology exactly? And how can it help you and your mental health?

Talkspace psychotherapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP, CMHIMP, defines clinical psychology as “a branch of psychology that addresses behavioral and mental health issues faced by individuals across the lifespan. It includes emotional, intellectual, psychological, social, and behavioral instability.” Clinical psychology integrates research, theories, and the practitioner’s knowledge to understand their client to help them address their challenges and prevent psychological distress and dysfunction.

It’s core objective is to help you develop as a person and improve your well-being.

No matter what form of mental health treatment you seek, there will likely be some clinical psychology involved. After all, it has been around since the 1890’s when psychologist Lightner Witmer opened a clinic focused on children with learning and behavioral challenges. While the groundwork was laid in the late 19th century, great strides in the areas of psychological testing and a rigorous scientific approach to mental health followed.

So, how can clinical psychology be practically applied to your life? You may see that you’ve been applying the methods of clinical psychology without even realizing it.

How Clinical Psychology Works

At its core, clinical psychology is a form of treatment that can help people of all ages address a wide range of mental health disorders — depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and learning disabilities among many others.

As Cynthia Catchings puts it, “Clinical psychology has several key aspects associated with the practical application of research methodologies and findings in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.” The steps of clinical psychology treatment may include:

  • Screening and Assessment: In Catchings’s words “this is a way of learning about the client, including diagnosing and planning treatment, that involves evaluation in order to understand what is affecting him/her/them.”
  • Treatment: Treatment can be carried out individually or in group therapy, or a combination of both. “The treatment modality varies from client to client, depending on their needs and personalities,” Catchings adds.
  • Discharge: If you have opted for an inpatient program, Catchings explains that this is the process of releasing a patient from a hospital or institution once treatment has been completed.

“A clinical psychologist can work with an individual or a family or a group,” Catchings details. “However, they specialize in the person and his/her/their behaviors.”

Catchings also says that, in clinical psychology, the psychologist can utilize different treatment perspectives when working with clients. She shares that these major theoretical perspectives within clinical psychology include:

  • Psychodynamic Approach: evolving fromSigmund Freud’s work, a psychodynamic approach is concerned with the unconscious mind and with childhood experiences.
  • Cognitive Behavior Perspective (CBT): Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps people identify adverse patterns of thinking and behavior while recommending coping mechanisms and tips to respond to difficult situations in more positive ways.
  • Humanistic Perspective: This psychological approach was developed in the 1960’s and is still widely used today. It’s a methodology that looks at each client as a whole person with a unique personality that needs to stand apart from the rest.

What Sets Clinical Psychology Apart

Clinical psychology is often considered one of the broadest forms of mental health treatments. Instead of being highly specialized, it can address myriad psychological hurdles.

Clinical psychology treatments are typically practiced by a clinical psychologist, someone who holds a PhD degree in psychology. It’s a treatment approach that’s well-rooted in scientific evidence.

“The clinical psychologist may provide counselling and psychotherapy but will also draw from rigorous scientific research to ensure that treatments are effective and well-matched to what the client wants,” Catchings said.

Another difference between clinical psychology and other methodologies is that, unlike a psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist can’t prescribe medication, “but understands and knows about most of the medications prescribed for mental health purposes,” Catchings adds.

Clinical psychologists can also administer psychological tests and interpret their results.

Why It Helps

You might be wondering, who can benefit from clinical psychology? Well, many people can. If you’ve never seen a clinical psychologist, their form of treatment might be a good fit specifically if you haven’t seen a licensed practitioner to address your mental health or if you’re seeking a diagnosis. Or, perhaps you’ve participated in talk therapy or a support group for a period and you’d like to dig deeper when it comes to your mental health.

“Clinical psychology can be helpful to people in several ways,” Catchings explains. She outlined the following benefits of clinical psychology treatment:

  • “It can help clients to understand and reduce negative emotions like depression, anxiety, and stress.”
  • “It can also help the client to learn about their diagnoses, and with the help of a clinical psychologist, work on minimizing the negative symptoms or behaviors displayed by the client.”
  • “Clinical psychology can also be seen as helpful in understanding behaviors in general. All clinical psychologists have a doctorate and research experience that permits them to conduct research and offer different ways to help and educate clients.”

Speaking of research, according to the American Psychological Association, “evidence shows that psychotherapy is an effective treatment, with most clients/patients who are experiencing such conditions as depression and anxiety disorders attaining or returning to a level of functioning, after a relatively short course of treatment, that is typical of well-functioning individuals in the general population.”

In other words — if you have mental health issues you’d like to work through using a combination of talk therapy and other clinically proven methods, clinical psychology could be exactly the treatment you’re looking for.

How to Benefit from Clinical Psychology

If you feel that clinical psychology may be a valuable tool for your mental health, you can speak to a mental health professional to learn coping mechanisms and receive helpful tips via a licensed online therapist.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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