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What is clinical psychology?

Do you know what clinical psychology is? If the answer is no, you’re in the right place. We explain clinical psychology, how it can improve mental health issues and what to expect during therapy with a clinical psychologist.

What is clinical psychology?

Clinical psychology is a specialty in the field of psychology that involves the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Issues treated through clinical psychology can range from mild emotional disorders to severe and complex mental illnesses.

Different types of psychology

Broadly speaking, psychology is the scientific study of the mind and its processes.  There are different branches (subcategories / specialties) of psychology including but not limited to:

  • Abnormal psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  •  Biopsychology (brain and behaviour) psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Industrial-organisational psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Forensic psychology

Now let’s explore clinical psychology and the role of a clinical psychologist during therapy.

Role of a clinical psychologist

“Clinical psychologists use their knowledge of psychology and mental health for the assessment, diagnosis, formulation, treatment, and prevention of psychological problems and mental illness across the lifespan. They research psychological problems and use their psychological knowledge to develop scientifically based approaches to improve mental health and wellbeing.”   Source: AHPRA

Clinical psychologists work in a range of different settings: hospitals, clinics, mental health facilities or can operate their own private practice.

Role of a clinical psychologist

What happens in clinical psychology?

Clinical psychology focuses on the following areas: assessment and diagnosis of a mental health condition, intervention (changing thought, feeling and behaviour) and using evidence-based therapy (EBT) methods to facilitate change.

Clinical Assessment

Clinical assessment is the foundation for treatment planning. At the start of therapy, clinical psychologists will assess their patients to understand the issues that need to be addressed.

Based on the outcomes of the assessment, a personal mental health care plan is devised to work on those issues.

The assessment process in clinical psychology involves:

Diagnostic interview

This is a discussion during which a client will talk about their current situation, background, and problems they are presenting with. The clinical psychologist will ask a series of specific questions to gain an understanding of how the client is thinking, feeling, and acting. 

Behavioural assessment

Used to identify and examine a client’s actions, a behavioural assessment in a clinical psychology setting identifies problematic behaviour, what triggers it, and the consequence.

The aim is to help individuals understand why they act the way they do.

In professional practice, clinical psychologists use various types of assessments, including an interview where the following types of questions may be asked.

  • How frequent is the behaviour?
  • Are other people involved?
  • What are the rewards or consequences of the behaviour?

Behavioural assessments may be ongoing throughout the course of therapy.


Another element that may be used in clinical assessment is a formal standardised psychological tests – also known as cognitive assessments. They are usually checklists and questionnaires that vary depending on the client’s situation.


Intervention in clinical psychology involves using various therapies or treatments to help a person make changes in their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Depending on what the psychological assessment reveals, a clinical psychologist will determine the most beneficial forms of intervention for the client. Essentially, what type of therapy will be the most helpful to address their psychological distress and bring about positive change.

While a clinical psychologist can diagnose mental disorders and provide appropriate interventions, they can’t prescribe medications. Only a medical doctor or psychiatrist can do this.  Instead, clinical psychologists use various types of psychological evidence-based therapies to help their clients, most commonly cognitive behavioural therapy.

Evidence-based therapy (EBT)

Clinical psychologists are trained to give evidence-based therapy (EBT); also referred to as evidence-based practice (EBP). This is any therapy that peer-reviewed scientific experiments and randomised controlled trials have shown to be effective. EBT is the preferred approach for psychological disorders and emotional distress.

Key examples of EBP used to work through mental health issues and psychological disorders include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT reveals the interconnected relationship between thoughts, beliefs, and actions. It is designed to identify and change inaccurate and biased thinking and beliefs and in turn, change problematic behaviour.

  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

DBT combines aspects of DBT with mindfulness, being present in the ‘here and now’ and acceptance of oneself. DBT is commonly used as a tool to treat issues associated with borderline personality disorder.

  • Psychodynamic therapy (PDT):  A talking therapy, psychodynamic therapy explores a client’s connection between their current thoughts, beliefs and feelings and their past experiences, usually from childhood. 
  •  Client-centred therapy: Particularly effective for treating anxiety and depression, this type of ‘non-directive’ therapy is distinct from other forms as the psychologist doesn’t direct the conversation during sessions.
    Clients are viewed as experts in their own mental health challenges. Instead of guiding the sessions with specific questions, clinical psychologists work to support and offer empathy as the client comes to his own conclusions and motivations for change. 

Many clinical psychologists use a mix of the EBT approaches during intervention for mental health issues.

Who can benefit from clinical psychology?

Who can benefit from clinical psychology?

People from all walks of life dealing with a range of mental health issues or major life changes can benefit from clinical psychology. Individual, group, and family therapy with a clinical psychologist can help with:

  • Acute, persistent or circumstantial anxiety
  • Overthinking, restlessness and inability to relax
  • Thoughts of self harm
  • Problems with substance abuse
  • Addictive behaviours
  • Sleep issues such as insomnia
  • Depression
  • Learning difficulties or ADHD
  • Body image and eating issues
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Shyness and fears

Tell me the difference between clinical psychology and psychiatry?

While both treat mental illness and psychological distress to bring about positive change, the fields of psychology and psychiatry are sometimes confused.

Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are both mental health professionals. However, psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medications while clinical psychologists are not medical doctors, but instead hold a psychology degree.

AHPRA website outlines the extra requirements for additional qualifications and advanced clinical practice for psychologists.

To find out more about therapy with one of our experienced clinical psychologists, reach out to our experienced team at Inspire Health and Medical.

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