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Clinical psychology: definition and functions of the clinical psychologist

Clinical psychology: definition and functions of the clinical psychologist

May 6, 2021

Clinical psychology is a subdiscipline within psychology that study all the elements involved in mental disorders and, more generally, mental health.

Thus, clinical psychology carries out all tasks of evaluation, diagnosis, prevention and therapeutic intervention in people with some type of mental impairment or maladaptive behavior, in order to restore psychological balance and eliminate all suffering.

Clinical psychology: a broad scope

Psychologists who are dedicated to the clinical field can have training in different schools, such as cognitivist, behaviorist, psychoanalyst, humanist, gestalt or systemic family therapy, among others.


What does a clinical psychologist do?

Clinical psychologists are mental health professionals who take care of those people who feel some type of psychological discomfort. In this sense, lClinical psychologists are responsible for diagnosing certain psychological disorders , to later offer a personalized intervention through psychotherapy.

Although this is the main aspect in which they intervene, psychologists also participate in the field of research (for example, contributing their knowledge in different scientific studies), in teaching (practicing as professors in public or private institutions), and even in other minority areas such as sports psychology, school psychology or as experts in clinical and forensic psychology.


The beginning of clinical psychology: Witmer and Freud

If we resort to the manuals of History of Psychology, it is usually noted that the beginning of what we know today as clinical psychology occurred in the United States during the last years of the nineteenth century. At that time, a psychologist called Lightner Witmer (disciple of Wilhelm Wundt) opens the first psychological clinic to attend people suffering from psychological problems, at the University of Pennsylvania.

In Europe, the honor of being considered the precursor of clinical psychology usually falls to the illustrious Sigmund Freud. Although many scholars often question the wisdom of declaring Freud as one of the architects of clinical psychology (since psychoanalysis raises a long controversy), the truth is that the Austrian was one of the first neurologists who approached the study and the therapeutic intervention of people with psychological affectations .


Freud, already in 1895, was dealing with defenders and detractors. His vision of the therapeutic intervention and its theoretical bases focused on three levels: study, direct therapeutic intervention and formulation of theories. This methodology founded the basic criteria of applied clinical psychology.

Twentieth century

During the first decades of the 20th century, the field of clinical psychology focused on psychological evaluation, but put little emphasis on intervention methodologies . It is after the Second World War when there is a boom in the revision of treatments, due to the high number of people who were harmed psychologically after the war.

As a result of this historical stage, the interest and the need to provide means to the field of clinical psychology becomes evident. Faculties of psychology arise and consultations and cabinets dedicated to dealing with mental problems are opened. From the academic world to public institutions, they agree on the need to promote study and clinical intervention, due to their positive effects on the quality of life of people.

Confusion between clinical psychology and psychiatry

In our article "What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?" We explain the similarities and differences between these two disciplines. Of course, it is still a source of confusion to know the functions of these two professional fields.

The main resemblance between clinical psychology and psychiatry is that both pursue the same ends: treat and mitigate psychological suffering . But both professionals differ in their previous training: psychologists studied psychology and psychiatrists, medicine. Another important difference is that psychiatrists are authorized to prescribe psychopharmaceuticals, while psychologists do not. In clinical practice, it is common for psychiatrists and psychologists to work together to treat patients who require multidisciplinary approaches.

Areas and applications of clinical psychology

Clinical psychology has been studied and perfected throughout the 20th century and in recent years, and has been studied by many professionals and academics of human behavior.

From the first years with Wilhelm Wundt in his laboratory in Leipzig, in which he tried to find all the observable and measurable variables of behavior, clinical psychology has been propagated to be the branch "par excellence" among graduates or graduates in psychology. In fact, and although psychology develops in clearly differentiated branches (business, educational, forensic, social ...), Clinical psychology has always been the most popularly recognized branch .

However, there are multiple approaches and tools used by professionals in clinical psychology, who work focusing on different fields of study according to different criteria, such as the following:

  • Intervention in families
  • Adult therapy
  • Child clinical psychology
  • Clinical neuropsychology
  • Neuropsychological rehabilitation
  • Attention and intervention in certain disorders
  • Evaluation
  • Psycho-oncology

In short, each professional of clinical psychology can specialize in those (or those) fields where you want to focus your professional practice. People who may require therapeutic care are varied: from children to the elderly, from people with basic diseases to healthy people, from people who have a strictly psychological problem, to others whose involvement is related to a bad family or social dynamic.

In order to achieve a greater understanding of each psychological affectation, Clinical psychologists can specialize in different fields . Through the knowledge and tools acquired, they will be able to offer more precise diagnoses and treatments to their patients.

Outstanding personalities

Many clinical psychologists have left us unpayable theories and teachings that have served as an academic inspiration to build knowledge of this discipline.

It can be said, rightly, that many of them were not training psychologists, but psychiatrists. However, it is possible to consider them psychologists to the extent that they were characters that contributed enormously to the theoretical and practical basis of clinical psychology.

  • Sigmund Freud
  • Lightner Witmer
  • Carl Gustav Jung
  • Fritz Perls
  • Albert Ellis
  • Aaron Beck

Bibliographic references:

  • Gradillas, V. (1998): Descriptive psychopathology. Signs, symptoms and traits. Madrid: Pyramid.
  • Lemos, S. (2000): General psychopathology. Madrid: Synthesis.
  • Vallejo-Riuloba, J. (1991): Clinical cases. Psychiatry. Barcelona: Salvat.

Meet Our Doc: Ayelet Talmi, PhD, Pediatric Psychology (May 2021).


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