November 23, 2014
People who experience serious psychological difficulties (e.g., depression, anxiety, addictions, post-traumatic stress) may decide that they want someone to help them understand and manage the distressing emotions and thoughts associated with these conditions. But when people in Winnipeg or elsewhere in Canada look for help (e.g., on-line, yellow pages), they find a wide array of professions that claim to help people overcome their psychological problems, including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, marriage and family counsellors, general counsellors, therapists, life coaches, and numerous other health-related professions. Given all these options, why should someone choose a psychologist?
First, Clinical Psychology is one of the few professions that focusses almost exclusively on assessment and treatment of psychological disorders during training. Other professions may include training on topics that are only loosely related to psychotherapy, such as societal disadvantage in social work or general medical education in psychiatry. In contrast, the education of Clinical Psychologists emphasizes understanding human emotion and experience from year one, and finishes with almost exclusive emphasis on the scientific understanding of psychological disorders and their effective treatment.
Second, most Clinical Psychologists receive a science-based training that incorporates the latest knowledge from scientific researchers related to the causes and treatment of psychological disorders. To obtain their final degree, most Clinical Psychologists also complete independent research on some aspect of clinical psychology. Scientific training enables Clinical Psychologists to understand and evaluate critically reports claiming effective treatments for depression, anxiety, addictions, or whatever. All too often such reports are based on weak or no evidence. The commitment of Clinical Psychologists to science is also reflected in their commitment to evidence-based treatments that have been found effective through rigorous research. Some other helping professions believe that clinical intuition is sufficient for determining effectiveness, but intuition alone can lead even the most experienced therapists astray.
Third, Clinical Psychology training involves extensive clinical practice to ensure that students not only master the scientific aspects of effective psychotherapy, but also develop the interpersonal skills that are also so important for successful therapy. Much research has demonstrated that a nurturing and collaborative relationship between therapist and client – referred to as the therapeutic alliance – is often an essential element in helping people deal with their psychological difficulties. Practicing therapy under the watchful eye of highly-trained and experienced psychologists ensures that graduates from Clinical Psychology programs have the skills and personal qualities necessary to form effective bonds with clients.
Fourth, the clinical competencies just described do not come easily. Unlike many helping professions, Clinical Psychologists receive a very extended and intensive education, including a 4-year undergraduate degree in psychology or a related discipline, 6 to 8 years of graduate training – in both the classroom and psychology clinics – to obtain MA and PhD or PsyD degrees, a full-year internship of clinical practice under the supervision of other experienced and licensed clinical psychologists, and an intensive licensing process before they become registered Clinical Psychologists, as indicated by the “R.Psych.” designation after their degrees. Even beginning Psychologists, therefore, have an extensive history of training and supervised practice.
Fifth, the fact that “Psychologist” is a registered professional designation, as opposed to such unlicensed terms as “therapist” or “counsellor,” ensures not only that the extensive training just mentioned has been completed successfully, but also that practitioners have continued their professional development through regular educational experiences required to remain licensed and that practitioners have not been reported to the licensing body for inadequate service or other violations of ethical clinical practice. Absent a licensing body to monitor therapists, professional standards and competencies will be quite varied and unpredictable.
So there are many reasons to select a licensed Clinical Psychologist to help you deal with your psychological difficulties. I believe the reasons listed here are valid on their own merit and not just because I happen to be a Clinical Psychologist who is registered in Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. But I also recognize that practitioners from other professions can also be of help to people experiencing difficulties and may sometimes be the only option because of cost or geography, although geography is becoming less of an issue with the wider use of E-Therapy by Skype or similar services available on the internet.
I close with a final comment about health-related professions that are only loosely connected with psychological well-being, but may make claims about questionable ways to improve your mental health. Be cautious about “magic bullets” that claim to solve psychological difficulties through diet, “natural medicines,” physical manipulation of the body, or mystical regulation of psychic “energies” that are mysteriously out of balance. There is little scientific or clinical evidence to support such unscientific approaches to psychological difficulties except possibly as a modest placebo effect. Although some people may take comfort from such approaches, they are not generally to be recommended for serious psychological issues.
Rather, people experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, addictions, debilitating stress, or numerous other psychological difficulties would generally be better served by any of the professions mentioned at the start of this entry, including of course Registered Clinical Psychologists.