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What is a psychologist?
A psychologist has an advanced degree in the Science of Human Behavior. Many psychologists have professional training and clinical skills to evaluate and treat your mental health using psychotherapy (talk therapy), psychological evaluations and testing. Psychologists help people learn to cope more effectively with life and relationship issues and mental health conditions.
What is a clinical psychologist?
Clinical psychology is a field of psychology. It’s characterized by thorough knowledge of a broad scope of areas in and outside of psychology. Clinical psychology encompasses all ages, multiple diversities and more severe mental health conditions.
A clinical psychologist has specialized and broad training to provide comprehensive mental and behavioral healthcare for individuals and families. Clinical psychologists can work in many settings, including:
- Hospitals and clinics.
- Counseling centers.
- Community organizations.
What’s the difference between a counseling psychologist and a clinical psychologist?
While there’s a lot of overlap between the professions of a counseling psychologist and clinical psychologist, the key difference is that a clinical psychologist focuses more on psychopathology (the study of mental health conditions); whereas a counseling psychologist helps people address emotional, social and physical stressors in their lives.
In other words, a clinical psychologist generally helps with more serious mental health issues than a psychologist, or counseling psychologist, does.
Some experts think there shouldn’t be two distinct terms for these mental health professionals.
Is a clinical psychologist a doctor?
Despite the word “clinical,” a clinical psychologist isn’t a medical doctor. They usually can’t order medical tests, like blood or imaging tests, and they generally can’t prescribe medication.
While practicing clinical psychologists have a doctoral degree — either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in a field of psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree — they don’t have a medical doctoral degree (MD or DO).
What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose and treat mental health conditions. They can prescribe medications and other medical treatments.
A psychologist has a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) and often has extensive training in research or clinical practice. Psychologists treat mental health conditions with psychotherapy (talk therapy). A psychologist usually can’t prescribe medication.
Psychiatrists typically treat more complex mental health conditions than psychologists, especially ones that require medication or medical treatments.
To give another perspective, psychology is the study of the mind, emotions and behavior; whereas psychiatry is the field of medicine focused on diagnosing and treating mental health conditions.
What’s the difference between a psychologist and a counselor?
A counselor (also often called a therapist) has a master’s degree in a mental health-related field such as psychology, counseling psychology or marriage or family therapy. A counselor is qualified to evaluate a person’s mental health and use therapeutic techniques, such as talk therapy.
A psychologist has a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) and often has extensive training in psychological research or clinical practice.
What does a psychologist do?
Psychologists help a wide variety of people and can treat many kinds of behavioral and mental health issues. They can also help with life and relationship issues.
Some people might see a psychologist because they’ve felt depressed or anxious or have lacked self-confidence for a long time. Others may see a psychologist because they have a short-term issue they want help with, such as feeling overwhelmed by a new job or difficulties with a loved one.
Psychologists are often included in the comprehensive care of people with medical conditions, too. For example, they may help people with sleep difficulties, chronic pain or eating behaviors or people coping with a chronic illness
Psychologists can provide tests and assessments that can help diagnose a condition or tell more about the way a person thinks, feels and behaves. These tests may evaluate:
- Intellectual skills.
- Cognitive (reasoning and thinking) strengths and weaknesses.
- Vocational (career) preference.
- Personality characteristics.
Psychologists use an assortment of evidence-based treatments to help people improve their lives. Most often, they use psychotherapy (commonly known as therapy or talk therapy), which involves building a talking relationship to establish and assess your feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Some common types of therapy include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
- Interpersonal therapy.
- Humanistic therapy.
- Psychodynamic therapy.
Therapy can be for individuals, couples or families. Your psychologist will work with you to determine the best type of therapy for your needs and goals.
Some people benefit from a combination of talk therapy and medication to manage their mental health condition. If this is the case for you, your psychologist will work with your primary healthcare provider and/or a psychiatrist for your overall treatment.
Can a psychologist prescribe medication?
In general, a psychologist can’t prescribe medication.
But five states in the United States, including New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, Iowa and Idaho, have laws that allow licensed psychologists with additional, specialized training to prescribe a limited list of medications that can improve certain mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
What can you see a psychologist for?
Your psychologist can help treat several different mental and behavioral health conditions, as well as help you cope with various life stressors. These issues can be long-term or short-term.
Situations and conditions you can see a psychologist for include:
- Alcohol use disorder and other substance use disorders.
- Anger issues.
- Body dysmorphic disorder.
- Coping with a new diagnosis or managing a chronic illness.
- Eating disorders.
- Family and relationship issues.
- Gambling disorder.
- Gender dysphoria.
- Hoarding disorder.
- Grief and loss.
- Issues with work or school performance.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Postpartum depression.
- Sleep disorders.
- Stress management.
- Self-confidence issues.
- Unhealthy habits.
While it can be difficult and overwhelming to seek help for mental health and behavioral conditions, it’s essential that you do so. Mental health conditions are very common, and your mental health and emotional health are just as important as your physical health.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does someone become a psychologist?
To become a psychologist, you must successfully complete:
- Four years of undergraduate education at a college or university, resulting in a bachelor’s degree.
- Four to six years of graduate school, resulting in a doctoral degree — either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in a field of psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree.
- A one-year full-time internship during graduate school.
- A national exam and additional exam(s) specific to the state in which you’re practicing.
In most states, you need an additional year of supervised practice before becoming licensed as a psychologist. Many will complete post-doctoral fellowships to develop a specialty within the field.
Licensed psychologists also need to complete continuing education, such as conferences, research and classes, every year throughout their career to stay up to date with advances in their field.
How long does it take to become a psychologist?
It can take eight to 12 years or more to become a licensed psychologist. It depends on how quickly you can earn a bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree. You’ll also need to complete a one-year full-time internship during graduate school and may need another year of supervised practice depending on which state you’re planning to practice in.
What are the subspecialties of psychology?
Some subspecialties of psychology include:
- Child psychology.
- Clinical psychology.
- Counseling psychology.
- Brain science and cognitive psychology.
- Developmental psychology.
- Experimental psychology.
- Forensic and public service psychology.
- Health psychology.
- Rehabilitation psychology.
- Sport and performance psychology.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
While it can be overwhelming to acknowledge and seek help for a mental health condition or emotional difficulties in your life, it’s important that you do. A psychologist can help you better understand and work through the roadblocks that are preventing you from living a full and healthy life. They’re experts in their field and have up-to-date knowledge on research and therapy strategies that can help you. Your psychologist will work with you to determine a treatment plan that works best for you.
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