What is Clinical Psychology? Definition, History, Approaches, and Careers

What is Clinical Psychology?

Clinical psychology is a specialized field within psychology that focuses on providing comprehensive mental and behavioral healthcare to individuals, couples, families, and groups. It involves the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of various mental health conditions, abnormal behaviors, and psychiatric disorders.

What sets clinical psychology apart is its wide-ranging scope, addressing diverse populations of all ages and backgrounds, as well as different systems and settings. It integrates knowledge and skills from various disciplines, both within and outside of psychology, to offer a holistic approach to understanding and addressing complex human problems.

Clinical psychologists are trained to apply scientific principles to their practice, using evidence-based techniques and therapies to help individuals overcome psychological difficulties and improve their well-being. They also play a crucial role in consulting with agencies and communities, providing education and training, and conducting research to enhance the effectiveness of their interventions.

Choosing a career in clinical psychology offers a dynamic and rewarding path for those interested in helping others and making a positive impact in the field of mental health.

The History of Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology has a rich history shaped by influential figures. Sigmund Freud, an Austrian psychoanalyst, emphasized the power of talk therapy in treating mental illness, making it an early scientific use of clinical psychology.

Also Read: What is Psychology? Definition, Types, History, Uses, and Goals

In 1896, American psychologist Lightner Witmer opened the first psychological clinic, specifically catering to children with learning disabilities. Witmer’s 1907 paper introduced the term “clinical psychology” and defined it as the study of individuals with the intention of promoting change [1].

The establishment of additional clinics in the United States by 1914 solidified the field’s growth. Today, clinical psychology remains a prominent subfield, encompassing diverse approaches and serving as the largest employment area within psychology.

The establishment and growth of clinical psychology gained momentum during World War I, as practitioners demonstrated the valuable use of psychological assessments. In 1917, the American Association of Clinical Psychology was formed, which later merged into the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1919.

World War II further solidified the role of clinical psychologists as they were called upon to provide treatment for soldiers experiencing shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The demand for mental health professionals to support returning veterans led to the expansion of clinical psychology during this time.

Interestingly, during the 1940s, there were no formal degree programs specifically dedicated to clinical psychology in the United States. However, the U.S. Veterans Administration established doctoral training programs, and by 1950, more than half of all Ph.D. degrees in psychology were awarded in the field of clinical psychology.

These historical developments paved the way for the continued growth and significance of clinical psychology in addressing mental health concerns and providing comprehensive care to individuals in need.

Also Read: The 4 Major Goals of Psychology

What Do Clinical Psychologists Do?

The following five are the most common functions every clinical psychologist does.

  • Assessment and Diagnosis: Clinical psychologists evaluate individuals, conduct tests, and analyze behavioral patterns to assess mental health and diagnose psychological disorders.
  • Therapy and Treatment: Clinical psychologists provide therapeutic interventions tailored to each client’s needs, using evidence-based techniques to address mental health concerns.
  • Psychological Intervention: Clinical psychologists develop and implement interventions to promote positive psychological functioning, teaching coping strategies, and problem-solving skills.
  • Consultation and Collaboration: Clinical psychologists collaborate with other professionals, offering consultation services and sharing expertise to support overall well-being.
  • Research and Evaluation: Clinical psychologists contribute to the field through research, analyzing data, and publishing findings to enhance understanding and improve therapeutic approaches.

Approaches of Clinical Psychology

The followings are some of the major theoretical perspectives within the clinical psychology psychologists use to study, predict, and change human behavior.

Psychodynamic Approach

This approach, influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, emphasizes the unconscious mind and early childhood experiences as influential factors in shaping an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Psychodynamic therapy focuses on exploring unresolved conflicts and unconscious processes to promote healing and personal growth.

Cognitive-Behavioral Approach

The cognitive-behavioral approach focuses on how thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors interact and contribute to psychological issues. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to identify and modify maladaptive patterns of thinking and behavior, with the goal of improving mental well-being. It emphasizes practical strategies to change negative thoughts and develop healthier coping skills.

Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach emphasizes an individual’s inherent capacity for personal growth, self-actualization, and self-determination. Humanistic therapies, such as person-centered therapy, focus on creating a supportive and non-judgmental therapeutic environment, where individuals can explore their experiences, values, and aspirations to enhance self-awareness and self-acceptance.

Biological Approach

This approach recognizes the role of biological factors, such as genetics, brain structure, and neurotransmitter imbalances, in influencing mental health and behavior. Psychologists utilizing the biological approach may work closely with other healthcare professionals to provide a holistic understanding of psychological issues and integrate biological interventions, such as medication management, into treatment plans.

Eclectic Approach

The eclectic approach combines various therapeutic techniques and theories based on the individual’s unique needs and circumstances. Clinical psychologists who adopt an eclectic approach may draw from different therapeutic models and integrate strategies from multiple approaches to tailor treatment to each client’s specific requirements.

Also Read: What is Cognitive Psychology? Definition, History, Topics, and Careers

Careers in Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology offers various career options. Some of the careers options but not limited to, people having knowledge of clinical psychology enjoy include the followings:

Clinical Psychologist

Clinical psychologists directly work with individuals to diagnose and treat mental health disorders. They may specialize in specific areas such as child psychology or forensic psychology. Examples include providing therapy in private practices or mental health centers.


Clinical psychologists can pursue research and teaching roles. They conduct studies to advance knowledge in the field and may teach courses at universities. Examples include conducting research on effective therapies or teaching psychology courses.

Clinical Supervisor

Clinical psychologists provide supervision and guidance to therapists and trainees. They oversee clinical cases and offer support and feedback on therapeutic techniques. Examples include mentoring therapists in counseling centers or supervising trainees.

Program Director/Administrator

Clinical psychologists can take on administrative roles, overseeing programs and services in mental health organizations. They manage staff and ensure smooth operations. Examples include directing substance abuse treatment programs or managing mental health clinics.

Clinical Consultant

Clinical psychologists offer their expertise as consultants to organizations, providing guidance on mental health policies or employee well-being. Examples include developing workplace stress management programs or conducting mental health training.

Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists apply psychology in legal settings. They assess individuals involved in legal cases, provide expert testimony, or offer interventions to incarcerated populations. Examples include evaluating competency to stand trial or assessing the risk of reoffending.


  1. Witmer L. Clinical psychologyAm Psychol. 1996;51(3):248-251. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.51.3.248
  2. Foley KP, McNeil CB. Scholar-Practitioner Model. In: Cautin RL, Lilienfeld SO, eds. The Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2015. doi:10.1002/9781118625392.wbecp532
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clinical_psychology
  4. https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/clinical

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