Understanding Clinical Psychology

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Clinical psychology involves the scientific study and application of study with regard to understanding, relieving and preventing psychological distress and dysfunction (Plante, 2005).  Clinical psychology is considered the most scientific in terms of academic education, research and application of the various forms of psychology. Psychologists who seek to practice in the fields of clinical psychology require, at minimum, a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology.  Students may go on to achieve a stand PhD or the new Psy. D. (Doctorate of Psychology) prior to obtaining licensure as a therapist.

Evolving Nature

Clinical psychology is a fascinating field that produces celebrity therapists like Dr. Phil and criminal forensic psychologist who testify in court, prepare psychological profiling and more.   The practice of assessment and psychotherapy combined with research, consultation, expertise and more makes clinical psychology a solid base for nearly all other fields of psychology.  According to the text:

“Clinical psychology focuses on the diagnosis, treatment, and study of psychological and behavioral problems and disorders. Clinical psychology attempts to use the principles of psychology to better understand, predict, and alleviate “intellectual, emotional, biological, psychological, social, and behavioral aspects of human functioning” (APA, 2000b).” (Plante, 2005)

Becoming a clinical psychologist requires an intense amount of education, dedication and commitment. Students who study clinical psychology can expect to spend five to eight years in graduate and post graduate work, including completing a dissertation. A Master’s in marriage and family therapy is considered a clinical psychology degree.  While some clinical psychologists will never treat a patient choosing, instead, a research field, the educational standards are no less rigorous.

The phrase “clinical psychology” was coined by psychologist Lightner Witmer. A student of Wundt, Witmer began a journal of clinical psychology in 1907. He identified the field as one that studied individuals, but used observation and experimentation to promote change (Plante, 2005). Theoretically, Witmer sought positive change and his work inspired change in the field.  Psychological clinics providing counseling and therapy opened across the country and while psychiatrists and physicians still maintained the respectability of treating mental disorders, it would take the development of intelligence tests during the first World War to encourage the academic and layman’s world to stand up and take notice.


Research remains an important part of the study of both clinical and counseling psychology. Practical study and research includes demographic studies, terrorist profiling, criminal profiling and forensic psychology. These fields require an understanding not only of the treatment portions of clinical psychology, but the application of understanding.  These types of clinical psychologists may never actually see a ‘patient’ or a ‘client,’ but instead provide detailed reports and analyses that help others and effect positive change.

In the early part of the 20th century, clinical psychology in its infancy lacked the wide-ranging reach that it possesses a short one hundred years later in the early part of the 21st century.  Continued research by counseling and clinical psychologists provides new treatment options, new educational options, new research options and fresh insights into the ever evolving needs of the public.

For example, in the early 1980s, clinical psychologists did not need to understand how video game playing habits influenced individual interactions on children, adolescents and adults (Elliot and Snyder, 2005).  By contrast, the modern clinical psychologist must also take into account Internet interactions, mass communication styles including text messaging on the efficacy of communication in a relationship.  Research is fundamental in providing clinical psychologists with research models and treatment models.

The Need for Change

Clinical psychology is a difficult field to categorize.  Clinical psychology is an applied science, a counseling field and a field dedicated to understanding why. Why do people develop abusive tendencies? Why do people react to stress with anger? Why do some people respond to negative stress with positive measures?  Why do some people turn to acts of violence? Why?  Clinical psychologists study, treat and effect change on the why.  The width and breadth of the field is deep and while each individual clinical psychologist does not perform all the tasks associated with clinical psychology, they are required to have the same education, the same level of clinical practice, knowledge and understanding.   Like their physician counterparts, clinical psychologists need a complex understanding of the human psyche and human behavioral choices.


It’s not easy to categorize clinical psychologists. They can and do wear many professional hats and make inroads into many professional areas of psychology.  Whether working as a social worker, marriage counselor or forensic profiler, clinical psychologists work to effect change on both the individual experience and the world.


Elliott, T. R., & Snyder, C. R. (2005, September). Sharing Open Secrets in Training Future Generations of

Clinical Psychologists. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(9), 1197.

Elliott, T. R., & Snyder, C. R. (2005, September). Twenty-First Century Graduate Education in Clinical

Psychology: A Four Level Matrix Model. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(9), 1033.

Plante, T. G. (2005). Contemporary Clinical Psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley


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