Is a Psychologist the Mental Health Professional for You?

It can be difficult to choose the mental health professional that fits your needs. The media often portrays psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers interchangeably, even though there are significant differences in the training these professionals receive, and the services they offer. April’s weekly blogs will focus on helping you to understand the differences between these professionals so that you can make an educated decision about which services you’d like to pursue. This week: Psychologists.

Degree, Education & Training:

Psychologists earn the degree of Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology). Ph.D. programs place greater emphasis on research and academics/teaching, and Psy.D. programs focus more heavily on clinical practice and direct client services, such as counseling. For individuals who already have a Master’s degree in a psychology-related field, three additional years of graduate education (which includes classes and several “real-life” training experiences called “practica”), one year of internship and one to two years of supervised post-doctoral training are required to become a licensed psychologist. In most states, licensure is required to practice, as well as continued education hours throughout the psychologist’s career in order to stay up-to-date on pertinent issues. Psychologists are trained extensively in diagnosis, psychological testing, and counseling and treatment procedures. School psychologists are very different from psychologists who practice in the general population; school psychologists receive specialized training associated with educational environments, and must receive additional training and certifications to practice outside of academic settings.


Some psychologists enter careers in research and teaching, and most engage in direct client services such as counseling and psychological testing. Counseling services are often specialized based on the clinician’s area of expertise, which typically develops during practica experiences (see above); a psychologist may specialize in work with a particular age group, type of disorder or specific life experiences – for example, as a psychologist, I specialize in counseling with youth and families who have experienced trauma, bullying or difficulties related to the adoption process. Psychological testing is an area unique to psychologists; it involves specialized testing and scoring procedures, diagnosis and treatment recommendations for concerns such as learning disorders, ADHD, memory, anxiety, mood and behavioral problems. Neuropsychologists specialize in testing associated with brain injuries and disorders related to aging. Many psychologists are also trained to provide supervision to doctoral- and master’s-level students and early career clinicians who are seeking training hours to obtain licensure.

When Should You Visit a Psychologist?

When you are seeking to identify a diagnosis from a set of symptoms, and/or are in need of recommendations for a course of treatment (such as whether medications should be considered, or the types of counseling that will be beneficial), a psychologist who performs psychological testing is your best bet. For example, your child’s preschool may suggest testing for ADHD to ascertain whether medications may be useful in managing behaviors, or you may have concerns about the cause of your aging parent’s declining memory abilities. In regards to counseling services, whether you are struggling with parenting, behavioral problems, relationships, past trauma, mood fluctuations, anxiety, stress management or other concerns, the guidance and support of a trained professional is important. When choosing a psychologist, make sure that you feel comfortable with the individual and have a sense of trust and safety during sessions. It is also recommended that you seek the services of a psychologist who specializes in your area of concern in order to receive the most beneficial treatment.


Next Week’s Blog: Is a Psychotherapist the Mental Health Professional for You?

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.