Clinical psychology is one of the most popular subfields within the discipline of psychology. It involves the application of psychological theories, principles and methods to the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders and other forms of abnormal behaviour. These include a wide range of conditions such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, addictions, eating disorders, and aggressive behavior. Clinical psychologists also examine the causes of abnormal behavior in order to predict and prevent maladjustment.
Most clinical psychologists have a doctoral level degree – Ph.D or Psy.D – and have undergone intensive practical training in clinical settings.
Clinical psychologists employed in medical settings and private practice usually engage in two core activities – psychological assessment and psychotherapy. Psychological assessment involves gathering information about a client’s presenting problem through the use of formal psychological tests, interviews, behavioural observations and analysis of past records. The aim of assessment is to gain deeper insight into the client’s problem and the factors that have contributed to it. Such information can assist with diagnosis and treatment planning. Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” involves establishing a therapeutic relationship with the client within which psychological issues are explored and addressed according to one or more theoretical orientations (e.g. psychoanalytic, cognitive-behavioural, humanistic etc.) The aim is usually to bring about some form of change in behavior, thought and/or emotion.
Clinical psychology shares several features with other helping professions and this overlap sometimes creates confusion. Much of the confusion surrounds the difference between clinical psychology and psychiatry. Although the latter draws on psychological theories and methods, it is primarily a branch of medicine. Thus, while both groups of professionals treat clients with similar problems, they usually differ in their approach to doing so. Clinical psychologists focus extensively on psychotherapy while psychiatrists place more emphasis on administering and evaluating the effects of medications. Although they often work in medical settings, clinical psychologists are not medical doctors and typically do not prescribe medications.In addition, while psychiatrists are equipped to conduct psychotherapy, research suggests that the number of psychiatrists doing so has been declining over the years (Mojtabai & Olfson, 2008, cited in Kalat, 2011).
Clinical psychology must also be distinguished from counseling psychology although the distinction between these two fields is not always clear. In short, clinical psychologists treat clients with more severe disturbances such as bipolar disorder, phobias and schizophrenia whereas counseling psychologists help clients deal with less severe everyday issues, such as marital, family or career problems. They may work in settings such as schools, businesses and private practice.
Kalat, J. W. (2011). Introduction to psychology (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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