Clinical Psychology is a specialty in psychology that involves the practical application of psychological theories for treating psychological problems and disorders (Pomerantz, 2016).
Clinical Psychology encompasses the prevention, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of many complex human behaviors, problems, and disorders (APA, 2014).
Psychologists who practice clinical psychology may work in settings such as their own clinical practice, university research labs, and social service organizations.
Psychological problems and disorders are prevalent, with at least 30% of US adults meeting the clinical criteria for a psychological or mental disorder each year (Kessler et al., 2005). Therefore, clinical psychology will likely remain a large and growing specialty within psychology for many years.
Clinical Psychology Definition
The term Clinical Psychology was first used in the early 1900s when Lightner Witmer described establishing a psychological clinic at the University of Pennsylvania (Witmer, 1907).
Witmer’s clinical first took on children with educational and behavioral issues as clients. However, Witmer envisioned Clinical Psychology applying to people with diverse problems and concerns across the lifespan.
Put simply, Clinical Psychology is:
“the study of individuals, by observation or experimentation, with the intention of promoting change”(Compas & Gotlib, 2002).
This change typically refers to changing behaviors and outcomes related to psychological problems and disorders.
The Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association, provides this definition:
“The field of Clinical Psychology involves research, teaching and services relevant to the applications of principles, methods, and procedures for understanding, predicting, and alleviating intellectual, emotional, biological, psychological, social and behavioral maladjustment, disability and discomfort, applied to a wide range of client populations. In theory, training, and practice, Clinical Psychology strives to recognize the importance of diversity and strives to understand the roles of gender, culture, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and other dimensions of diversity.” (Society of Clinical Psychology).
10 Clinical Psychology Examples
The following are examples of approaches clinical psychologists will complete in their roles:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that a clinical psychologist may take. CBT focuses on identifying and becoming aware of inaccurate and negative thinking. CBT is a very popular approach and is highly effective for many psychological concerns and problems.
- Psychodynamic Therapy. Psychodynamic therapy is an approach that a clinical psychologist may take. This approach focuses on the roots of emotional suffering using self-reflection.
- Systemic Therapy Approach. Systemic therapy is an approach that a clinical psychologist may take. This approach focuses on how personal relationships and behavior patterns are interconnected.
- Integrative Therapy Approach. Some clinical psychologists may integrate tools and methods from multiple therapeutic approaches that best suit a particular client. For example, there may be CBT and systemic therapy approaches that suit a particular client and their needs. So, a clinical psychologist may formulate an approach using both tools.
- Psychological Research. Clinical Psychology training programs follow the scientific-practitioner model. Many clinical psychologists work at universities, medical schools, or research hospitals where a large part of their job isn’t seeing clients but performing research. These psychologists will write grants, design studies, conduct statistical analyses, and write scientific journal articles focused on clinical psychology. For example, a clinical psychologist’s research program may focus on the underlying reasons why so many people have more than one psychological disorder (comorbidity).
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – DBT is all about helping patients with emotional regulation and impulse control. You might approach them if you have anger management issues, for example. It trains people to acknowledge and accept their emotions, and also will help give them with techniques that help them manage their emotions effectively. DBT is also often used for patients with borderline personality disorder.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) – ACT is all about assisting patients to accept their thoughts and emotions without judgment. It then encourages them to redirect their focus toward values-driven actions. It can enhance individuals’ sense of purpose and personal satisfaction by instructing them to concentrate on what matters most to them instead of wasting time and resources controlling or eliminating unwelcome thoughts and feelings.
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT) – IPT is a short-term therapeutic approach that helps to enhance communication and your relationships. It’s often used to treat depression. IPT will help patients comprehend and improve their interactions with others so they will maintain more positive relationships with people that matter.
- Group therapy – This type of clinical psychology involves small groups instead of one-to-one therapy. The idea is that patience can enjoy a supportive atmosphere where they can learn from one another’s experience. With other patients in the room, they can also practice new behaviors and receive peer feedback. Group therapy can be beneficial for a wide range of personal psychological concerns.
- Mindfulness-based therapies – Mindfulness-based therapy has become increasingly popular in the past decade. It incorporates mindfulness techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises into therapy sessions to help people relax and achieve control over their thoughts. The objective is to help patients become more cognizant of their thoughts and feelings, and develop a more accepting and non-judgmental attitude toward them.
What are the Knowledge and Skills Required for Clinical Psychologists?
Clinical psychologists have extensive specialized training, knowledge, and skills.
They are experts in areas such as:
- behavioral problems, and
- mental health across the lifespan.
This expertise is used in research and applied clinical settings.
They also specialize in assessing cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and interpersonal functioning. With this knowledge, they can implement interventions to improve the well-being of their patients.
Clinical psychologists work to understand and address traumatic stress reactions, severe mental illness, emotional regulation, social problems, substance use issues, and many other conditions (APA, 2022).
They apply their training, skills, and knowledge in diverse settings and with diverse populations. They work with individuals across the lifespan, couples, families, groups, and communities.
What Training do Clinical Psychologists Need?
A clinical psychologist typically holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Clinical Psychology programs follow the scientific-practitioner model, which heavily focuses on research.
As a result, clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs are incredibly rigorous.
Ph.D. students are required to balance coursework, clinical training, and research.
This training, including an internship year, typically takes at least six years. Additionally, Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs have highly competitive admissions processes.
Many different types of people with varying training, backgrounds, and degrees work in the broader field of Clinical Psychology and counseling. For example, many therapists hold Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees. There are also doctoral degrees in counseling psychology and PsyDs, which are more focused on clinical practice and less research-oriented.
Other Types of Psychology
- Evolutionary Psychology – Evolutionary psychology aims to understand how thoughts, actions, and behavior are shaped by evolutionary forces (Mealey, 2023; Workman, 2004).
- Biological Psychology – Biological psychology involves studying biological influences on behavior, thoughts, and emotions (Kalat, 2015).
Overall, Clinical Psychology involves researching, assessing, and treating complex human behavioral problems, psychological issues, and psychological disorders.
Clinical psychologists help people with various concerns – from emergency counseling for a traumatic event to prolonged care for someone experiencing treatment-resistant depression.
Clinical psychologists are highly skilled and trained in numerous psychological theories and approaches. With the prevalence of psychological problems and disorders, clinical psychologists’ expertise is essential.
Clinical Psychology. (2022). American Psychological Association (APA). https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/clinical
Clinical Psychology Solves Complex Human Problems. (2014). American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/subfields/clinical
Compas, B. E., & Gotlib, I. H. (2002). Introduction to Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. McGraw-Hill.
Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Demler, O., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of Twelve-month DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), 617–627. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.617
Pomerantz, A. M. (2016). Clinical Psychology: Science, Practice, and Culture. SAGE Publications.
Society of Clinical Psychology. (2012, May 7). https://div12.org/
Witmer, L. (1907). Clinical Psychology. The Psychological Clinic, 1(1), 1.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]