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Can Clinical Psychologists Diagnose Mental Illness?

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Receiving a mental illness diagnosis is a serious and involved process for both patients and mental health providers. When people suffer from symptoms that might indicate mental illnesses, psychological disorders or other types of mental health problems, they might consult a qualified mental health provider for an evaluation, diagnosis and treatment. A clinical psychologist is a licensed, doctoral-level mental health provider who offers these services to patients dealing with a wide range of problems that affect mental health and well-being.

The Evaluation Process

Clinical psychologists receive new patient referrals in a variety of ways. Some patients are self-referred, meaning that they recognize the need for help and search for a clinical psychologist on their own. Others are referred by health care providers, like doctors, or by their insurance companies. When a clinical psychologist receives a referral, he inquires about the reason the patient is seeking treatment. He then sets up an appointment for an initial evaluation. At the end of the evaluation period – which can take more than one or two sessions – the psychologist may diagnose the patient with a mental illness, such as clinical depression or anxiety, and suggest a course of treatment, such as psychotherapy.

Purpose of Diagnosis

The purpose of a diagnosis is not just to give a name to a specific condition, although that is a helpful part of recognizing and understanding a patient's concerns and problems. To be reimbursed for clinical services, many insurance companies require clinical psychologists and other mental health providers to submit a specific diagnosis along with a patient's insurance forms. In addition, a specific diagnosis helps a clinical psychologist formulate a treatment plan. Certain diagnoses might require other or adjunct forms of treatment in addition to the traditional treatments offered by psychologists. For example, a patient with depression may need anti-depressants in addition to psychotherapy. In such cases, a psychologist will refer his patient to a psychiatrist for a medication evaluation.

How Psychologists Diagnose Mental Illness

Clinical psychologists use a variety of techniques to assist in the diagnostic process. When they meet with patients, they carefully evaluate factors such as emotional stability, body language, eye contact and other forms of non-verbal communication and assess whether a patient is engaged in the interview. A psychologist might also administer specific psychological tests to determine the presence of mental illness. These factors, combined with a patient's health history, family history and personal reports, are used to determine whether a patient's symptoms meet diagnostic criteria for specific mental illnesses listed in the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders."

Training in Assessment and Diagnosis

Clinical psychologists undergo rigorous education and training in assessment, diagnosis, evaluation, testing and treatment. During their doctoral studies, they take coursework in diagnosis and assessment, but they also participate in supervised clinical internships. In the first year of their doctoral studies, clinical internships usually involve conducting intakes in a clinical setting and receiving training in diagnosis and assessment. The second year internship involves further diagnostic and assessment training. During the third, fourth and fifth years of their doctoral programs, aspiring clinical psychologists receive additional training in psychotherapy and other clinical psychology services.


Ashley Miller is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and aromatherapist. She has also worked as an employee assistance program counselor and a substance-abuse professional. Miller holds a Master of Social Work and has extensive training in mental health diagnosis, as well as child and adolescent psychotherapy. She also has a bachelor's degree in music.

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