About Clinical Psychology

What is a clinical psychologist?

Clinical psychologists have specialised training in helping people with a wide range of emotional and mental health problems. Some of the people they help have particular emotional or mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. Others have difficulties with their thinking (also known as ‘cognitive’ problems). These can take many forms, such as problems with memory or perception after a head injury, or a learning disability.

Clinical psychologists can also help people with lots of different life problems. They can help people who have had traumatic experiences (for example who have experienced a bereavement or abuse of some kind), who have difficulties in relationships (for example who find it hard to form or maintain relationships or whose relationships are often unhappy due to repeated conflict or problems), or who find it hard to cope with distressing situations or emotions. Clinical psychologists are trained to work with people across the lifespan (children, adults, older adults) and in different modalities (individual, group, couples).

What is the difference between a clinical psychologist and a therapist or counsellor?

Clinical psychologists have extensive training in assessing a range of mental health problems across the lifespan and determining the best form of help. They also have a particular skill in developing formulations. A formulation is an individualised understanding of the person seeking help and their difficulties (often drawn as a diagram or “map” to make it easier for the person to understand) that allows the clinical psychologist to select an individualised treatment plan drawing on different types of therapy, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach. This is another key difference from counsellors or therapists, as clinical psychologists are also trained in providing more than one type of therapy. Therapists and counsellors, on the other hand, usually specialise in providing only one particular type of therapy (e.g. psychodynamic psychotherapy, or counselling, or CBT).

What should I expect if I go to see a clinical psychologist?

A clinical psychologist will usually start by assessing your difficulties to get a better understanding of them. This can take 2-3 sessions. This will include talking with you and asking questions, and might also include asking you to fill out some short questionnaires. The assessment helps to identify exactly what the problem is (the target problem)- if there are several problems a problem list can be drawn up to prioritise the issue that is causing you the most distress. Once the problem has been identified, the best course of action is agreed. This might involve giving you some information and advice or it might involve agreeing to start therapy (treatment). If therapy is the best step, a clinical psychologist will help you to set goals for treatment. Identifying goals means it will be easier for you to know if therapy has been useful for you.

The clinical psychologist will then develop a formulation using the information from the assessment and with the help of the person to ensure it accurately reflects their experiences. This may involve talking about the person’s target problem in more detail to find out why it developed and more importantly what is keeping it going.

Therapy will then involve identifying different strategies and techniques to address the target problem. Its aim is to give the person seeking help stronger and more effective skills to cope with their problems in future. These are often practised during therapy so any potential barriers to using the skills can be identified and overcome. Therapy is a collaborative process between the clinical psychologist and the person seeking help and involves regular review of progress and feedback regarding satisfaction. This allows the person to think about whether therapy is helping them, to review the goals they initially set for therapy, and to progress to another problem on the problem list if appropriate. Therapy may be short term or longer term, depending on the problem. Some of the most effective treatments for problems such as anxiety and depression are relatively short-term. The preferences of the person seeking help are also an important consideration.