What Is A Clinical Psychologist?

Understanding Clinical Psychology

A clinical psychologist.
A clinical psychologist. Ned Frisk/Getty Images

A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional with highly specialized training in the diagnosis and psychological treatment of mental, behavioral and emotional illness, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

What a Clinical Psychologist Does

Clinical psychologists do not prescribe medications to treat mental illness; rather, they use psychological techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalytic therapy if they are in practice.

Clinical psychologists must usually complete a Ph.D. in clinical psychology before being able to practice. However, in some states and provinces, a Master’s degree is sufficient. In most states and provinces, the professional activities of clinical psychologists are regulated by a licensing board and/or professional college. In addition to delivery of psychotherapy, psychologists may undertake a variety of activities, including psychological testing, research and teaching.

ABCP Basic Competencies in Clinical Psychology

The American Board of Clinical Psychology (ABCP) examination makes certain that board certification for clinical psychologists includes basic competencies in order to be able to practice, teach or conduct research. These competencies include:

  • Making and maintaining effective relationships with others, including clients, fellow practitioners and the public. The clinical psychologist must also be fair, respectful, a clear communicator and able to handle potentially difficult situations with understanding and diplomacy.
  • Sensitivity to individual and cultural diversity and understanding how these factors affect who we are and how we think.
  • An awareness of ethical and legal principles and employs them effectively.
  • A professional attitude, values and behaviors that are apparent in interactions with others.
  • A continual practice of self-evaluation and always striving to improve treatment methods.
  • An understanding of different scientific disciplines that relate to psychology and how they may impact treatment.
  • Skill in collaborating with others from different disciplines and organizations, employing respect, appreciation and communication.
  • Keeping up with the latest research and identifying how it can improve clinical practice.

Specific Skills of a Clinical Psychologist

Clinical psychologists have a whole host of specific skills that they employ in their work, including:

  • Consulting with a variety of other behavioral and health professionals and organizations about violence, suicide and severe mental distress.
  • Understanding the broad expanse of mental health issues and how they may occur at any age.
  • Assessing personality and standardized psychological test scores in order to be more effective in treating patients.
  • Having an extensive knowledge of mental illness and how to diagnose and treat it.
  • Being able to perform research and collect data to enhance the understanding of clinical psychology.

    The Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist

    The biggest difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that a psychiatrist is actually a medical doctor (MD) with a medical degree who can prescribe medications. A psychologist typically cannot. While psychologists also have a doctorate, it is not a medical doctorate. Psychiatrists go through a year of medical internship followed by three years of residency in treating and diagnosing mental illnesses. Psychologists usually do one to two years of internship after completing their degrees.

    Should I See a Psychologist or a Psychiatrist?

    Whether you pick a psychologist or a psychiatrist may depend on several factors. Some psychiatrists only prescribe medication and do not do psychotherapy, so you might see a combination of a psychiatrist and a psychologist to get both medication and therapy. Many psychiatrists do both, however.

    One major difference between the two approaches is that while a psychologist will typically look at your behavior, a psychiatrist is more likely to look first at the biological factors behind your mental health problems.


    "Clinical Psychology." American Psychological Association (2016).

    "Clinical Psychology." American Board of Professional Psychology (2016).

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