How to Become a Rehabilitation Psychologist – Schooling and Degree Guide [2024]

Last Updated: June 1, 2024

What is a Rehabilitation Psychologist?

Rehabilitation psychologists help people to live happier and healthier lives by addressing the issues they are experiencing that are making their daily lives more difficult. Rehabilitation psychology is an area of psychology that addresses a wide range of mental, emotional, cognitive, and developmental disorders and disabilities as well as many types of addictions.

Having certain disorders or an addiction can be very difficult for the person who is experiencing it as well as for their loved ones, family and friends. Rehabilitation psychology can offer support and treatment to help make the problem more manageable or even eliminate it.

What Does a Rehabilitation Psychologist Do?

Rehabilitation psychologists focus on helping individuals with chronic health issues, such as addictions, disabilities, mental illness and trauma, to achieve their highest possible potential and level of independence. This includes providing programs and services that promote academic, social, emotional, and physical development.

In one area of specialization, rehabilitation psychologists might be working with addictions, and therefore, job duties would include helping people to recover from their alcohol or drug addiction.

In other areas, they might be working with clients to help them overcome and better cope with challenges such as emotional disorders or cognitive disabilities. The way in which a rehabilitation psychologist would treat these clients is through one-on-one therapy, group therapy, family therapy, or referrals to outside sources such as a psychiatrist for medication or other types of need.

A central component of the job is to assess individuals that are experiencing difficulties in carrying out activities of daily living and designing interventions to address those issues. This might involve running a variety of tests on an individual to determine the nature and scope of the issue at hand. Common tests include:

  • Physical exams, such as freedom of movement and mobility
  • Psychological testing, to determine the presence, if any, of a psychological disorder
  • Cognitive tests, such as an IQ test, to identify any intellectual deficits

Common services provided by a rehabilitation psychologist include establishing a strong support network that will help the client achieve his or her goals. This usually involves working with medical and mental health professionals, family, and friends of the client to ensure everyone is aware of the client’s goals and how to best support the client in achieving them. In this role, rehabilitation psychologists act as a case manager and advocate.

Rehabilitation psychologists also commonly work one-on-one with clients to address specific issues that are preventing them from realizing their potential.

From providing educational training to an adolescent who has a learning disability to designing a treatment program for an older individual that has a substance abuse problem, the range and scope of therapeutic work a rehabilitation psychologist might perform is quite broad.

Where Does a Rehabilitation Psychologist Work?

Rehabilitation psychologists typically work at detention centers, substance abuse rehabilitation centers, mental health clinics, psychiatric hospitals, physical therapy centers, private practices, academic institutes, and many other environments.

What Degree is Needed to Become a Rehabilitation Psychologist?

In order to become a rehabilitation psychologist, you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate as well. A bachelor’s degree can usually be completed in four years of full-time coursework. A master’s degree, depending on the school, can be completed in approximately two years.

You might be able to obtain an entry-level job in rehabilitation psychology with a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in social work. It is possible to work in the rehabilitation psychology field at entry-level with a master’s degree, but most job positions, generally, require a Ph.D in psychology.

During formal education, it is recommended you try to complete any specialization that school offers related to rehabilitation psychology or rehabilitation counseling. You might even want to get more specific if you know the particular area you want to work in. For instance, if you are interested in substance abuse treatment, you might also even specialize in or at least take courses related to that area.

Throughout your education, you may be required to obtain certain types of training, such as internships to practice your skills. Also, you are required to go through a process of fees and testing in order to obtain licensure.

Each state varies on the exact costs and requirements, but they all require licensure before being able to practice psychology. Also, continuing education (a certain amount of training hours) is required yearly to maintain licensure.

How Much Does a Rehabilitation Psychologist Make?

As of November 2022, according to the ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for rehabilitation psychologists is $96,151. Workers in the bottom 10 percent of earners, such as those new to the field with little or no experience, make less than $24,000 per year.

However, individuals with an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree or a doctorate, and workers with several years of experience in the field, can expect to make earnings in the top ten percent, which is just under $210,000 per year.

What Skills and Qualities are Needed for a Rehabilitation Psychologist?

To be a rehabilitation psychologist, you should be optimistic about people’s ability to change. You should have the ability to maintain a positive, caring attitude toward your clients despite the possibility of change happening slowly or even having your clients relapse at times. You should be empathic, truly concerned with the well-being of your clients.

You should also have a desire and an ability to work with people who may be living very challenging lives and who may come from very disadvantaged and sometimes very traumatized backgrounds.

Overall, you should have a compassionate, accepting, and non-judgmental stance toward those you work with and for people in general who are struggling, oppressed, or disadvantaged in some way.

What is the Difference Between a Clinical Psychologist and a Rehabilitation Psychologist?

Although both clinical psychologists and rehabilitation psychologists help people with mental health problems, the specialties do have some differences.

One of the main differences is the patient population they treat. For example, clinical psychologists often treat people with mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia and personality disorders.

Rehabilitation psychologists care for patients who have chronic illnesses, neurological trauma and other health conditions, and they treat the psychological impact of those conditions.

The emotional impact of a chronic condition or serious injury can be significant and interfere with all areas of a person’s life. Rehabilitation psychologists have expertise in understanding how a physical problem or medical condition can cause mental health issues. They commonly work with people who have chronic pain or injuries due to accidents.

Rehabilitation psychologists perform comprehensive assessments to determine how to help an individual overcome their emotional, social or interpersonal issues related to their medical condition. Rehab psychologists often work for veteran programs, rehabilitation hospitals and in acute care hospitals.

Clinical psychologists may work with a broader patient population. Their patients tend to be people who have mental health issues, which are not due to a physical problem or chronic medical condition. Clinical psychologists most commonly work in mental health hospitals, substance abuse treatment programs and in private practice.

It’s important to understand both rehabilitation psychologists and clinical psychologists may have some overlap in the work they do. In fact, in some instances, they may even collaborate to provide care. But they are two distinct professions.

What are the Careers in Rehabilitation Psychology?

This branch of psychology allows for many career options. Rehabilitation psychologists often work in acute care hospitals, helping individuals with serious injuries and illnesses. Someone in this field at such a hospital would help a terminal cancer patient cope, be there for someone struggling with glaucoma causing them to go blind, or help their families cope along with them.

Other career options include working for drug rehabilitation centers or physical therapy offices. At drug rehab centers, a rehabilitation psychologist would help patients cope with withdrawal symptoms, the difficulty of overcoming addiction, and teach them how to live ‘normal’ lives again, without substances.

At a physical therapy center, a rehabilitation psychologist might help counsel the all-star track athlete who broke his leg and cannot compete at the national championship.

A rehabilitation psychologist might help a paraplegic learn how to function in day-to-day life, while providing emotional support throughout the journey.

What Careers and Degrees are Similar to Rehabilitation Psychology?

Rehabilitation psychology centers around helping individuals with chronic mental, physical, and psychosocial issues cope with their disability to achieve a higher level of functioning. As a result, there are numerous similar occupations both in the psychology and healthcare sectors.

Clinical Psychologist

Like rehabilitation psychology, clinical psychology focuses on assisting people better their lives through improved functioning. Clinical psychologists use various therapeutic treatments, including psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and individual or group therapy to help bring about positive change in their clients’ lives.

Social Worker

Part of helping a client rehabilitate from an illness is ensuring that they have access to the services needed to make progress in their lives.

Social workers fill that need by identifying resources in the community that help clients cope with life’s challenges. This might include referring clients to healthcare services, helping clients find a psychosocial support group to join, or educating family members about how to help their loved one achieve better functioning.

Recreational Therapist

Recreational therapists also work with chronically mentally and physically ill patients. Unlike rehabilitation psychologists, who tend to focus more on the social and emotional aspects of being ill, recreational therapists tend to work more with the physical aspects of illness.

Recreational therapists utilize all sorts of interventions to help clients remediate or overcome obstacles that illness presents. These might include physical activities like dancing, therapeutic interactions with other people or therapy animals, or enjoyable activities like arts and crafts.

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists often work side by side with rehabilitation psychologists to treat individuals with chronic disabilities and illnesses. Like recreational therapists, occupational therapists focus on improving a client’s mobility and functioning in daily life.

For example, an occupational therapist might work with a client that has sustained a leg injury on developing appropriate exercises to rebuild strength and agility in the injured leg.

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