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What is Clinical Psychology?


What is a clinical psychologist?

A clinical psychologist is a highly-trained mental health professional who specializes in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Clinical psychologists are non-physician doctors (PsyD or PhD) who specialize in mental health, including substance use disorders. Clinical psychologists are trained to conduct psychological assessments, and provide various forms of psychotherapy and psychosocial interventions, as well as other treatments, depending on the needs of each patient.

Prescribing psychologists are specialized clinical psychologists who have completed the education and training requirements of a clinical psychologist, as well as education and training in clinical medicine. Prescribing psychologists are able to prescribe medication, in addition to psychological assessment and psychotherapy, and can order medical/laboratory and imaging tests that provide a comprehensive profile of a patient’s physical state. Because of their extensive training, prescribing psychologists understand the body’s functions and the complex relationship between emotional illness and other medical illness.

What training do clinical psychologists receive?

Clinical psychologists must complete an undergraduate college education followed by at least four years of graduate school that leads to a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) in clinical or counseling psychology. After completion of coursework, psychologists-in-training complete a one-year internship in clinical psychology, followed by a one- to two-year postdoctoral fellowship in clinical psychology or another specialty or sub-specialty of psychology. The internship and fellowship are held in academic medical centers, university counseling centers, hospitals, community mental health centers, correctional facilities, private practices, schools, etc. and include supervision by senior clinical psychologists and further instruction in many aspects of psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. After the postdoctoral fellowship is complete, psychologists-in-training must pass a national, standardized exam, the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), to practice clinical psychology independently.

Prescribing psychologists must complete undergraduate biomedical coursework, including courses in medical terminology, general biology or molecular and cell biology, chemistry or biochemistry, microbiology, human anatomy, human physiology, and anatomy and physiology. They must also complete a two-year Master of Science degree in clinical psychopharmacology (MSCP) that includes coursework in clinical biochemistry, neuroscience, neurophysiology and clinical medicine, pharmacology and clinical pharmacology, physical assessment, pharmacotherapeutics, advanced psychopharmacology, and treatment of special populations. Prescribing psychologists-in-training are then required to complete a 1,620-hour prescribing psychology fellowship over the course of at least 14 months that consists of nine rotations, including psychiatry, family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, geriatrics, surgery, emergency medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, and one elective. The final step to practice prescribing psychology is to pass a national, standardized exam called the Psychopharmacology Examination for Psychologists (PEP). Once licensed, prescribing psychologists must maintain a collaborative agreement with a physician with whom they meet at least monthly to review cases.

Some psychologists also choose to become board certified in one of several psychological specialties through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). These specialties include addiction psychology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, clinical child and adolescent psychology, clinical health psychology, clinical neuropsychology, clinical psychology, counseling psychology, couple and family psychology, forensic psychology, geropsychology, group psychology, organizational and business psychology, police and public safety psychology, psychoanalytic psychology, rehabilitation psychology, school psychology, and serious mental illness psychology. They must be re-certified every 10 years.

What kind of treatment will be provided?

Your clinical psychologist will interview you about your history and talk with you to define problems and determine the treatment approach that suits you and your needs. Some clinical psychologists may administer a series of psychological or neuropsychological tests to assist in the evaluation.

A clinical psychologist might recommend psychotherapy, which is a talking intervention that helps you learn more effective ways of dealing with problems. Your clinical psychologist might also recommend meeting with your entire family or may suggest that you participate in a therapy group. Clinical psychologists sometimes use specialized techniques such as biofeedback, neurofeedback, EMDR, behavioral modification, and stress management training. In some cases, the clinical psychologist may refer you to a physician or prescribing psychologist for a physical assessment or medication evaluation. For some people, treatment involves only a short term of therapy; for others, a longer time will be required to work on problems that have built up over years. The frequency of psychotherapy is typically once or twice a week. Treatment may be provided through outpatient care or in an inpatient setting.

How helpful is psychological treatment?

Various studies have demonstrated that almost everyone who seeks psychological help experiences some relief that makes them less troubled and makes their lives more pleasant.

Psychological treatment is a very effective way to get help to deal with life’s problems. Psychologists continually conduct research on the effectiveness of treatment and that research is communicated to your therapist. Clinical psychologists refrain from using treatments that are controversial or ineffective.

When is it time to contact a clinical psychologist?

Clinical psychologists see a variety of people for all sorts of reasons, including marital and family problems, illness or injury, loss of a loved one, anxiety, loneliness, depression, psychological aspects of medical illnesses, addictions, behavioral problems, disturbances in eating and sleeping, sexual issues, difficulties at work, educational problems, and caring for the elderly. Clinical psychologists also assist during a crisis, including natural disasters and terrorism.

Whatever your problems are, a clinical psychologist is someone on whom you can rely. Together, in a confidential and supportive atmosphere, you and your clinical psychologist will work to understand and resolve problems—problems that, until now, may have resisted your best efforts.

What to ask before or during your first appointment

Here are some questions you might ask:

• How many years have you been practicing?
• Do you have experience with my particular problem?
• How would you approach dealing with my particular problem?
• What are your fees?
• Do you accept my insurance policy?

How do I pay for psychological treatment?

Private insurance typically covers at least part of the cost of mental health services. The best way to verify whether you are covered is to call the phone number on your insurance card and ask about your mental health benefits or look up your coverage information online. Ask if there is a deductible or copayment, whether you need pre-authorization, whether there is a limit to the number of sessions, and whether you need a referral from your physician. If you are covered by Medicare or Medicaid, contact these agencies for benefit descriptions.

If you do not have coverage, you will be responsible for paying for your treatment. Some therapists will accept a lowered fee in the case of financial hardship or they may offer a payment plan.

Clinical psychologists are required to protect your confidentiality

Clinical psychologists are bound by strict rules of confidentiality. Talk to your clinical psychologist about any limits to confidentiality. Some of your protected health information may be released to obtain insurance reimbursement. With your consent, your clinical psychologist may contact others involved in your care, such as physicians, hospitals, and previous therapists.

How can I find a clinical psychologist?

There are several ways to find a clinical psychologist.

• Ask a friend or medical provider to recommend a clinical psychologist.

• Call your health insurance company. Many people today have insurance plans that direct them to clinical psychologists who are reimbursed by their insurer.

• Contact your local hospital, mental health center, place of worship, or search for “psychologists” on an online search engine.

• Call the Illinois Psychological Association at (312) 372–7610 or visit the referral section of this website for a referral to a clinical psychologist. All clinical psychologists referred by the Illinois Psychological Association are licensed and insured.

Some of the previous content is adapted from Talk to Someone Who Can Help brochure (APA, 1996).

What is the difference between a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist?

A clinical psychologist is a non-physician doctor (PsyD or PhD) and has extensive training in research and/or clinical practice. Clinical psychologists conduct psychological and neuropsychological evaluations and treat mental disorders with psychotherapy. Illinois also has prescribing psychologists, who are able to prescribe medications and other medical treatments, in addition to psychotherapy and psychological and neuropsychological evaluations.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with specialized training in psychiatry. A psychiatrist is able to prescribe medications and other medical treatments. They also may conduct psychotherapy, although fewer than 10% currently engage in psychotherapy.