You may have seen articles in Newsweek and the Washington Post that claimed clinical psychologists were not properly trained to understand and use current research to help them treat patients. This blog previously tried to refute and clarify some of the claims made in the Newsweek article. But you may still be wondering if you can trust that psychologists are up to speed on current research and are giving people the best care.
As a clinical psychologist who has been practicing for the past 23 years, let me shed some light on these provocative and misleading articles.
Like my colleagues, I rely on research daily to help make decisions on the best way to help clients. Yesterday, for example, I saw a patient suffering from depression. I used the current research available to help instruct this patient on ways to monitor her negative “self talk,” the critical harsh thoughts she had about herself, and to suggest alternative ways she could think about herself. I also gave her a reference book and homework to help reinforce these concepts.
So let’s talk a little about what it takes to make a clinical psychologist.
Clinical psychologists receive extensive training and education in psychological science and theory, clinical diagnoses, psychological assessment and specialized training in evidence-based treatments.
It all begins with a bachelor’s degree. Here are the rest of the steps to becoming a licensed practicing psychologist. My path to becoming a clinical psychologist is fairly typical of most psychologists, so I’ll use it as an example.
- Graduate school! It takes the average clinical psychologists six to seven years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree to complete their training. I studied, for example, at the University of Illinois in Chicago, a program accredited by the American Psychological Association, where I took years of coursework in statistics, normal and abnormal psychology, child psychology, psychological testing, psychotherapy techniques and behavioral medicine. I also had several clinical placements at child and adult outpatient clinics, a state hospital and a university outpatient clinic.
- Research training and experience while in graduate school! At the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, my research training focused on the study of attachment between mother and child. I worked in a laboratory setting observing hundreds of moms and one-year-old babies playing together. I watched to see what happened when the mother left the room for a few minutes and then returned to be reunited with the baby. Attachment is thought to relate to later ability to form close interpersonal relationships in adulthood. I completed an original master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation in this area as well and presented this information at local and national conferences.
- Internship training! To finish your graduate training, you must complete an approved one year full-time clinical internship (followed by either a year of full-time clinically supervised experience or a one year clinical fellowship.) I did my clinical internship in Chicago at Michael Reese Hospital followed by a year of full-time clinical work and supervision at the hospital working with high risk adolescents who were struggling with severe depression. Following all of this clinical training you are almost finished.
- Doctorate! Graduation means you now have a doctorate. People could start calling me Dr. Nancy, but that didn’t mean I could yet practice on my own. I needed more training to get a license.
Phew! That’s a lot. But you’re not done yet.
- FINALLY! You can take the exam for your license, and once you pass it, you can practice psychology and call yourself a psychologist. So, for me this journey took a total of six-and-a-half years of full-time training and work experiences!
But, wait, there’s still more!
- Continuing education! To keep that license to practice, we need yearly continuing education credits. I have taken courses in such areas as “Newest research findings on the success of treating depression in adolescents” or “Ethical dilemmas of working with older adults.”
Our training is very important, of course. But in my opinion, what really makes a clinical psychologist is the ability to combine training with clinical experience and judgment. I know the research on clinical depression, for example, but I also know that humans are incredibly complex and that their individual differences, their family situation, their past history are all important and need to be considered in devising a treatment plan and in devising any psychological treatment.
Years of research show that psychological treatment works! Most patients who are treated show improvement. Successful treatment is based on three factors:
- using the most appropriate evidence-based treatment
- clinical expertise of the psychologist
- the patients’ values
So how can you be sure you’ll find the right clinical psychologist for you? A great place to start is asking trusted friends, family members or your primary care physician for a referral. You can also check your state psychological association for a local referral. Trusted online resources and directories, such as the APA locator are often also useful.
Make sure you select a licensed provider, and don’t be afraid to interview prospective psychologists about their clinical expertise and training, especially with regard to your specific area of concern.
Before selecting a psychologist, ask about their approach to treatment, their attitudes toward things such as missed sessions, telephone contact, fees and accepted insurance. A good “chemistry” between psychologist and patient, as well as a collaborative working relationship is essential to successful treatment.
Be active: Ask questions about your treatment plan, help set the goals for treatment and ask your provider for a timeline. If your situation does not improve within a reasonable amount of time, talk to your provider and discuss additional methods of treatment.
Selecting the right psychologist can be stressful and confusing. But don’t be scared away from seeking help. A psychologist can help you when you can’t do it yourself.