Some musings on the ‘Clinical’

What’s in a name?

I am a psychologist, but I do not, and cannot, label myself as a ‘clinical psychologist’.


I am sometimes referred to as a Clinician.

I have spent nearly two decades of my life working in a Clinic, where my Clinical judgment was offered to clients and discussed amongst my peers in Clinical supervision.

My highest qualification is called a Clinical Doctorate.

The etymology of the word ‘clinic’ goes back to the Greek klinikē tekhnē which translates approximately as ‘bedside art’. I don’t see any of my clients in bed (however you read that phrase) and I am regularly informed that what psychologists do is not an art, but a science.

‘Clinical’ is often linked to the world of medicine. Yet, as a psychologist, I don’t see ‘patients’, don’t work in a hospital and have no medical training.

My cloudiness around the word ‘Clinical’ is fogged up further when I consult my dictionary. It tells me that ‘Clinical’ has a number of meanings and a long and chilly list of synonyms including;

…detached, impersonal, dispassionate, objective, uninvolved, distant, remote, aloof, removed, cold, indifferent, neutral, unsympathetic, unfeeling, unemotional, non-emotional, unsentimental; scientific, analytic, rational, logical, hard-headed, sober, businesslike…

If my work as a ‘Clinician’ was ever to be described using these ‘Clinical’ synonyms, I would be deeply concerned. With the possible and rare exception of the word ‘objective’, none of my clients have used any of these Clinical words to describe the kind of person they want sitting with them as they work on their psychological material.

Language is absolutely central to psychotherapy, a form of engagement sometimes called ‘the talking cure’. Our use of the words ‘clinical’, ‘clinic’ and ‘clinician’ has been slipshod and inaccurate as a label of who we are and what we do.

I suspect our misuse and misappropriation of the word ‘clinical’ has its roots in mainstream psychology’s desire to be seen as a legitimate science. This wish has fuelled a campaign that began over 100 years ago and continues to this day. Despite limited success, conservative forces within psychology routinely do push for a recognition of our work as a ‘clinical science’ – within the discipline, across science in general and throughout the general populous. Outside enclaves of self-interest, the public, legitimate scientists and our clients have not bought the ‘psychological science’ message.

What’s in a name? Perhaps by making our labels and monikers sound scientific, we might get to play with the real scientists.

– RAPS Supporter