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Understanding therapist titles: What is a psychologist?

by Sarah Graham
Thursday 13 November 2014
1159 6674

When you're searching for a therapist on, you'll come across various different professional titles. It can be difficult to know what each title means - Do I need a psychologist or a counsellor? A psychotherapist or a psychoanalyst? - so, to clear things up, we asked a number of RSCPP therapists to explain what their title means and what you can expect from that type of therapist.

So what is a psychologist? Chartered Psychologist Nadia Al-Khudhairy explains:

Psychology is the science of the human mind and behaviour. Psychologists practise that science and are concerned with the thoughts, feelings and motivations that explain our behaviour. They study the factors that influence the way we think, feel and learn, and they often help us to overcome mental and emotional challenges. Psychology is a science and thus it sees itself as a discipline that will continue to grow, pending recent research, which means it is always changing, growing and evolving.

Psychologists practice the science of the human mind and behaviour, and are concerned with the thoughts, feelings and motivations that explain our behaviour.

That is a very general definition of psychology and psychologists, and it is fundamental to most disciplines of the science. But definitions can get very much more complicated when we consider the many fields of psychology that require special training, such as neuro-psychologists, educational psychologists, industrial psychologists, research psychologists, health psychologists, sport psychologists and organisational psychologists. All practitioners have similar basic training at a first degree level, but they will usually go on to attain specialist masters degrees and, sometimes, even more specialist doctorates. Their careers then diverge radically.


Psychologists in 'talking therapies'

So to keep things simple, let's assume that you are interested in what have become known as 'talking therapies', the exploration by counselling and clinical psychologists of our underlying mental and emotional states, especially those that negatively influence our happiness, fulfilment, behaviour and interaction with the rest of the world.

Most of us have some understanding of this kind of work, even if we tend to think of the cliché of a patient lying on a couch while someone (usually with a long beard) takes notes about the conversation and ultimately blames the patient's parents. Of course, that amusing stereotype owes much to our perception of the work of Freud, Jung and other early 20th Century pioneers in Psychology. But talking therapies have come a very long way in recent decades, especially with the development of very useful practical and relatively rapid techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Sigmund Freud may have started it all, but he would hardly recognise the methods of today's counselling and clinical psychologists.

Counselling and clinical psychologists develop their knowledge through research and continuous professional development.

Both counselling and clinical psychologists work in similar ways and in similar settings. They develop their knowledge through research and continuous professional development, which helps them to integrate emerging research into their practices. They can work with adults, couples, groups and children. Both are scientists, and inform their practice by looking to the latest research. The distinction between them is, therefore, small. But it is worth considering the practices that make them different.


Counselling psychologists

Counselling psychologists generally work with healthier individuals, giving primary care. They are highly trained in the practice of psychotherapy or counselling and are usually trained in at least two therapeutic models, for example psychodynamic therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), systemic therapy, cognitive analytic, solution focused therapy, or person centred therapy. 

Counselling psychologists are trained to focus on helping people cope with current circumstances and to address long-standing problems, which might be depressionanxiety, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addiction, bereavementrelationship problems and eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia.


Clinical psychologists

Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, often focus on individuals with more serious mental health issues, such as psychosis - the kind of mental illness that often means individuals' perception of their world, and their behaviour in it,
differs radically from that of healthy individuals.

Like counselling psychologists, they aim to reduce psychological distress and to enhance and promote psychological well-being. To assess clients, they use a variety of methods, including psychometric tests, interview and observation.

A fundamental skill for psychologists is the ability to question intelligently, listen carefully and compassionately without judging.

But the two disciplines have more in common than they have differences. A fundamental skill for both is the ability to apply talking therapy. They question intelligently, listen carefully and compassionately without judging. They draw on a large body of theory and methods to help their clients discover strategies to cope with their problems and attain happier, more fulfilling lives.

All psychologists follow a professional body's confidentiality guidelines and code of ethics.

Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 07 January 2015