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From anxiety to schizophrenia, mental illness affects as many as 1 in 5 adults in the United States. On average, it takes 11 years for those people to receive treatment after mental illness symptoms first make themselves known. Symptoms may include changes in mood, behavior, appetite, sleep, memory, and personality. Fortunately, there is a professional discipline that seeks to understand the human mind in all its functions and dysfunctions.1

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines psychology as “the study of the mind and behavior.”2 Many different branches of psychology have developed over the years to scientifically examine human thought, emotion and behavior. These branches include:

  • Abnormal psychology
  • Behavioral psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • Personality psychology
  • Social psychology

Some of these lean heavily toward research, with much time in the laboratory and little direct work with clients. 3 But one branch in particular emphasizes interacting with clients and diagnosing and treating their mental illnesses. We'll look at the education needed to enter as counseling psychologists and mental health professionals. But first let's first talk about what clinical psychology is and how it's different from other fields of psychology.

What is Clinical Psychology?

Clinical psychology is a field that applies psychological research and techniques in "clinical" settings. According to one simple clinical psychology definition, it's "the study of individuals, by observation or experimentation, with the intention of promoting change." Their field is "clinical" because it involves observing and working directly with patients in clinics and related settings. However, the practitioners of psychological clinical science may also extend their clinical care and work as part of a team of other health or social workers. Clinical psychologists meet with individuals, families and other groups in places like counseling centers, schools and hospitals. They practice in community health clinics and veteran service centers.

Most clients seek psychological services on their own accord. But clinical psychologists are not limited to private practice. A clinical scientist or psychologist is sometimes appointed by courts or insurance companies to perform psychological assessment and evaluations that inform legal judgments. So clinical psychologists assess the mental health of inmates in prisons. Whatever the situation or clinical setting, they must be good listeners, highly skilled, and able to recognize mental and psychological disorders, and offer treatments. Their clinical work requires them to also be organized, as collecting data and maintaining accurate records of client sessions is part of the job.

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What Does Clinical Psychology Focus On?

Let’s take a look at clinical psychology examples. Clinical psychology provides mental health services for people of all ages and from all walks of life. Methods and techniques may vary from practice to practice. But the focus of clinical psychology is on assessing clients' mental health through psychological assessment and testing, and providing appropriate interventions. In addition to these primary activities, clinical psychologists sometimes conduct clinical research and act as consultants. 4  Here is a closer look at the primary functions of a clinical psychologist:


In helping restore mental health, clinical psychologists follow much the same progression that medical doctors follow in restoring physical health. They must first find out what the problem is and what’s causing it. So the clinical psychologist assesses the client in order to diagnose the mental health issue. This is done in multiple ways.

  • In a diagnostic interview, the clinical psychologist asks questions that give the client opportunities to talk about himself or herself. These questions probe into what the client is thinking, feeling and doing, and how the past influences the present.
  • A behavioral assessment allows a clinical psychologist to observe and evaluate a client’s behavior. This assessment may reveal a pattern of behavior that indicates the presence of mental disorder and illness.
  • Standardized psychological tests may be given by the counseling psychologist in order to measure a mental disorder. These are formal tests often given in the form of checklists and questionnaires.


Based on what the assessments reveal, the practitioner will recommend a psychological intervention, or treatment. There are different approaches to treatment. Some clinical psychologists favor one method over the others, but multiple approaches may be employed in treating a client. Regardless of which approach is used, treatments require multiple sessions. Occasional follow-up visits are often part of mental health maintenance plans after treatments have concluded.

  • The cognitive behavioral approach holds that many mental disorders stem from a person's negative thoughts and behaviors. These are often exposed through "talk therapy" with the mental health counselor which involves confronting potentially uncomfortable and painful past topics through honest dialogue. The goal is to help the client recognize emotional triggers and teach them how to respond to them positively.5 
  • The psychodynamic approach also helps the client become aware of negative thoughts, but emphasizes the unconscious mind. Through psychoanalysis, the clinical psychologist helps the client explore and sort out hidden conflicts from the past. 
  • The humanistic approach is also known as “client-centered therapy.” It promotes acceptance, empathy and the idea that the client knows himself or herself better than anyone else. It also holds that focusing on the present is more important than digging up events from one’s past.6


In addition to treating clients, clinical psychologists are sometimes contacted by other health professionals and organizations. They may be asked to collaborate on community health initiatives or provide expertise in some other way. 


Even though clinical psychologists usually spend most of their time with clients, they continuously draw on the latest research. They may also conduct original research based on data they have collected. 

What is the Difference Between Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry?

The fields of psychology and psychiatry are often confused, as both treat mental and emotional disorders. To better define clinical psychology from psychiatry, it is important to note the difference in the training and methods used in these disciplines. Psychologists, including those specializing in counseling psychology and clinical neuropsychology, treat clients whose mental illness may be the result of past emotional traumas or other negative influences. Treatments usually involve working through problems using talk therapy acting as a mental health counselor and other non-medical techniques. Psychologists are not medical doctors, but instead hold doctorate degrees in either psychology (PsyD) or philosophy (PhD). If in a university setting, these professionals may be part of the psychology department, contributing to research and teaching. 

When a client’s disorder is attributed to an imbalance in brain chemistry or some other physiological cause, that’s when a psychiatrist steps in. Psychiatrists generally have undergraduate degrees in psychology, and therefore know many of the cognitive-behavioral treatments that clinical psychologists use. They are medical doctors (MDs) who specialize in the medical treatment of mental illnesses. Whereas most psychologists cannot prescribe medications, psychiatrists can.7

Is Clinical Psychology the Same as Therapy or Counseling?

Many people use the terms clinical psychologist, counseling psychologist, and therapist interchangeably. This is understandable, as professionals in those fields often have backgrounds in behavioral sciences and perform similar roles. They work in similar settings - from schools and hospitals to private practices - and must be state-certified to practice. They typically hold clinical sessions with clients to help them come up with a treatment plan, and resolve psychological and behavioral dysfunctions. They may administer psychological tests, and prescribe appropriate cognitive therapies and coping strategies.

However, the educational requirements and clinical training are higher for clinical psychologists, as therapists are generally required to have only a master’s degree. And while therapists may treat patients who have mental illnesses with their master’s level degree, they often work with clients who don’t. People who are struggling with substance abuse, marital trouble or personal tragedy often seek out therapists over clinical psychologists.8

How Do You Become a Clinical Psychologist?

Becoming a licensed clinical psychologist requires gaining both strong academic training and real-world experience in the field of psychology and clinical science. Students interested in this type of career must complete an accredited clinical psychology program and go through clinical training before they can graduate with a degree.

1. Earn your clinical psychology degree.

Complete an undergraduate BS or BA degree in psychology from an accredited institution. You are usually required to receive a passing grade of “C” or better in each of these four courses:

  • Statistics
  • Abnormal Psychology or Psychopathology
  • Experimental Psychology/Research Methods in Psychology
  • Physiological Psychology, Learning/Memory, Cognitive Psychology or Sensation/Perception

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2. Take and pass the GRE Psychology Test.

Passing this standardized test is an admissions requirement for many graduate schools of psychology. Some schools only accept clinical students and applicants who score in the 80th percentile or better.

3. Earn your doctoral degree.

Earn a PsyD or PhD in clinical psychology through an APA-accredited clinical program, such as those offered through the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at  Alliant International University. The course loads for these programs may overlap, with common topics like data analysis and cultural diversity. Although clinical psychology graduate program offerings vary by school, you’ll will have the opportunity to choose an emphasis of study based on your interests. Health, family/child and couple, and forensic psychology are just a few of the possible topics of emphasis. While the PsyD program emphasizes clinical practice and the PhD program emphasizes research, both programs include dissertations and internships.

4. Complete an internship.

Once you've completed the clinical psychology doctoral program, you're required to have documented hours of clinical field work in order to become a licensed psychologist. California requires at least 3,000 hours of supervised professional clinical experience.

5. Pass national and state psychology exams.

You will need to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). In California you will also need to pass the California Psychology Law and Ethics Examination (CPLEE).

6. Acquire your license.

After passing the psychology exams and your clinical psychology program, you may finally apply for state licensure. This licensure shows that you can legally earn a salary as a practicing clinical psychologist. As part of the license application process, you’ll need to be fingerprinted. In California, you must also show that you’ve completed coursework in certain subjects, such as child and spousal abuse.

Become a Clinical Psychologist today

Alliant International University can prepare you for licensure in this field. Alliant’s California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) offers APA-approved programs in clinical psychology. If you are looking to become a licensed clinical psychologist, contact our team at Alliant University today by calling (866) 825-5426.


1“Mental Health by the Numbers,” National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI),

2“Frequently Asked Questions about Apa,” American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association), accessed November 3, 2021,

3Kendra Cherry, “How Different Branches of Psychology Study the Brain and Behavior,” Verywell Mind (Verywell Mind, October 13, 2020),

4“Clinical Psychology Solves Complex Human Problems,” American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association), accessed November 3, 2021,

5“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” Mayo Clinic (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, March 16, 2019),….

6Kendra Cherry, “How Clinical Psychology Is Used to Treat Mental Illness,” Verywell Mind (Verywell Mind, July 6, 2020),

7“Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist,” Psychology Today (Sussex Publishers), accessed November 3, 2021,

8 Marie Miguel, “Therapist vs Psychologist: Which One to Choose,” BetterHelp (BetterHelp, May 18, 2017),….


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