What are the Differences Between Neuropsychology and Clinical Psychology?

Psychology is an extraordinarily broad field. You can study one small aspect of psychology throughout college and practice in that area of psychology your entire career without ever exploring other specializations in depth.

So, while disciplines like neuropsychology and clinical psychology are both “psychology” and have some similarities, they are also very, very different fields. The question is, what are the specific ways in which neuropsychology is different from clinical psychology? This detailed guide provides you with answers to that very question!

Differences Between Neuropsychology and Clinical Psychology

Neuropsychology Vs. Clinical Psychology

The primary difference between neuropsychology and clinical psychology is the focus of practice. A neuropsychologist is especially interested in how the brain affects behavior. A clinical psychologist, meanwhile, focuses more on treating mental disorders.

We might draw this distinction in another way: where neuropsychologists are more evaluative in their work, clinical psychologists are more treatment-oriented. For example, let’s assume you are a neuropsychologist working with a client who was in a car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. Your role would be to conduct cognitive assessments to determine how the client’s brain injury affects their behavior.

As a clinical psychologist, though, your role would be more in diagnosing and treating behavioral, emotional, and mental disorders that arise from the brain injury. Part of doing so might include consulting with a neuropsychologist to better understand the connection between the client’s injury and their behavior.

In other words, while neuropsychologists and clinical psychologists provide different services, this doesn’t mean they work independently of one another. Treating clients with mental disorders is often a team approach and could involve many other professionals, including other specialists in psychology, social workers, physical and occupational therapists, and medical doctors, to name a few.

The area of focus is just one broad difference between these fields of psychology, though. As discussed below, other important distinctions make neuropsychology and clinical psychology unique careers.

Differences in Job Duties

The methods that neuropsychologists and clinical psychologists use to treat their clients also differ. For example, assume a child’s pediatrician is concerned the child has ADHD. So, the doctor refers the child to a neuropsychologist to assess their executive functioning skills, including their ability to pay attention, inhibit impulsive behavior, plan ahead, and various other functions.

A neuropsychologist might administer an executive function screening to determine the child’s level of executive functioning. In addition to obtaining background information about the child, screenings like this often include various game-like tasks that test executive functioning skills. A memory test using playing cards is a simple example of one of these game-like tasks.

So, let’s assume the child performs poorly in the executive functioning screening. Then what? The next step might be to collaborate with other professionals to determine a plan for treatment. For ADHD, this might involve working with the child’s pediatrician to prescribe medication to control the ADHD symptoms. It might also involve referring the child and their parents to a clinical psychologist for ADHD treatment.

If you are a clinical psychologist working with this child, your methods will not focus as much on assessment (though you might conduct assessments of your own to gather more information about the child’s functioning). Instead, your methodology will be more in the treatment realm, especially if the child has been referred to you by a neuropsychologist.

For example, knowing that the child has the cognitive markers of ADHD, you might suggest psychoeducational sessions as a starting point for treatment. Clinical psychologists use psychoeducational activities with children and their families to help them understand what ADHD is, how it manifests, and how it can be treated. A large part of psychoeducational methods is also to help the client accept their disorder, reduce shame, and empower them to learn how to handle their symptoms best.

Another method a clinical psychologist might use to treat ADHD is cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. This is a highly effective clinical treatment for ADHD because it directly addresses the two primary features of ADHD – the cognitive symptoms and the behaviors that result. CBT focuses on changing emotions and thoughts that lead to negative behaviors.

For example, you would work with the child to help them be more aware of how their ADHD affects their emotions and thoughts. You would also help them develop the skills necessary to evaluate if their emotions and thoughts are illogical or distorted. The next step would be to help the child change those illogical or distorted thoughts, which, in turn, changes the behaviors that result.

Another difference regarding the methods neuropsychologists and clinical psychologists use is that neuropsychologists tend to work one-on-one with clients. Using the same ADHD example, a neuropsychologist would conduct psychological assessments with the child, not the child and the child’s parents (though, as a neuropsychologist, you would certainly have conversations with the child’s parents about concerning behaviors and emotions the child is exhibiting).

Conversely, a clinical psychologist would almost certainly work with the child and the child’s parents in therapy. In fact, one of the most popular and important clinical interventions for treating ADHD is parent training, such as teaching parents how to support their child and react to the child’s unwanted behaviors in an appropriate way. Likewise, clinical psychologists might observe parents and their children to examine their interactions and make suggestions for improving their relationship.

Neuropsychologists and clinical psychologists also differ in the scope of their work. As a neuropsychologist, you will perform assessments on clients, work with other professionals on treatment planning, and conduct neuropsychological research. This is a lot of work, to be sure, but when compared to the scope of work of clinical psychologists, it’s much more narrow.

Clinical psychologists not only diagnose mental health disorders, but they are also involved in treatment planning, conducting psychological assessments, and providing treatment. The treatment component alone might involve dozens of different approaches, depending on the client’s needs.

Therein is another difference between neuropsychology and clinical psychology – neuropsychologists usually work with a much smaller set of clients who have specific brain-based behavioral issues. Clinical psychologists, though, might work with people with depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and an array of other problems.

Differences in Work Environment

As a neuropsychologist, the chances are good that you will work in one of two environments: a hospital or a research facility. Hospitals and other medical facilities employ neuropsychologists to provide services to patients with neuropsychological disorders. Likewise, neuropsychologists collaborate with medical professionals and other mental health providers in medical settings as part of a larger treatment team.

Many neuropsychologists choose to work in research settings as well. The skills you have as a neuropsychologist are invaluable for exploring the connection between the brain and behavior, which can be done in behavioral research labs, pharmaceutical labs, and academic research labs, too.

Not all neuropsychologists work in hospitals or research settings, though. You might pursue a career in academics, teaching neuropsychology at the graduate level. Alternatively, you might work as a consultant for state or federal agencies that devise policies related to mental health care and treatment. You might also work in inpatient mental health settings, where you can provide cognitive assessment services as part of the intake process for patients.

Clinical psychologists have a similarly broad spectrum of potential work environments. One of the most popular options is to work in private practice. As a self-employed clinical psychologist, you get to determine which clients you work with, the hours you work, and even the types of mental health disorders you treat.

Many clinical psychologists work in mental health facilities, like residential treatment centers, outpatient mental health clinics, and community mental health organizations. In each instance, you would spend the majority of your time providing direct clinical care to clients in individual, couples, or group therapy.

Like neuropsychologists, clinical psychologists might also work in academic settings as professors, in hospitals as part of treatment teams for psychiatric patients, or in consultative roles with public or private organizations. Clinical psychologists frequently work for public and private school systems, correctional facilities, and in some cases, in research settings as well.

Differences in Education

A commonality between neuropsychologists and clinical psychologists is that both require a doctorate. The type of doctorate needed is different, though. For example, to become a neuropsychologist, you would to complete a Ph.D. in psychology with a neuropsychology concentration. This typically involves coursework, research, a dissertation, and an internship all focused on issues related to the brain-behavior connection.

All told, the time needed to complete the education requirements for neuropsychology is likely in the 12-year range – four years for an undergraduate degree, three years for a graduate degree, and five years to complete a doctoral program.

Meanwhile, to become a clinical psychologist, you would need to complete either a Ph.D. or PsyD in psychology. These programs focus mostly on psychological theories and techniques and gaining experience utilizing those techniques in a clinical setting. Doctoral programs in clinical psychology include coursework, practicum placements, and internships. They often include research and a capstone project or dissertation, too.

You will need about 10-12 years to complete doctoral training as a clinical psychologist. After four years in an undergraduate program, you will need three years to complete a clinical psychology master’s degree and another three to five years to finish your doctoral work. These figures assume that you attend school full-time, though. You could need several more years to finish your schooling if you are a part-time student.

Whether you are a neuropsychologist or clinical psychologist, you will need to be state-licensed to practice. The licensure requirements for psychologists vary from state to state, but you typically need to complete several thousand hours of supervised post-doctoral practice and pass a competency exam before a license is issued.

Do Neuropsychologists Treat Patients?

Whether a neuropsychologist treats patients depends on their work setting. For example, clinical neuropsychologists provide direct treatments to patients for neurocognitive disorders, learning disabilities, and traumatic brain injuries. Clinical neuropsychologists are licensed to practice by the state in which they work to provide services to clients.

However, a neuropsychologist working in a research setting would not treat patients. Instead, their work would be done in a laboratory, and though they might conduct research with human subjects, they wouldn’t be providing treatments to those subjects. As a result, research-focused neuropsychologists are not usually licensed.

Can a Neuropsychologist Diagnose Mental Illness?

Neuropsychologists can diagnose mental illnesses, though their diagnostic expertise is generally limited to neurocognitive disorders. For example, a neuropsychologist might evaluate and diagnose someone with dementia, ADHD, autism, or amnesia. They might also diagnose Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, or learning disorders, to name a few.

Is Neuropsychology Medical or Mental Health?

Neuropsychology is a mental health career. Though they might work closely with medical professionals, their role is diagnostic; they cannot prescribe medication or perform medical procedures.

Do Neuropsychologists Go to Med School?

Neuropsychologists do not go to medical school. Instead, they complete a psychology doctoral program with a neuropsychology concentration.

Which is Better? Neuropsychology or Clinical Psychology

Neuropsychologists and clinical psychologists both provide crucial services that can significantly improve the daily functioning of their clients. One is not necessarily better than the other. Rather, the situation will dictate whether you should seek the help of a neuropsychologist or a clinical psychologist.

If you or a loved one have concerns about your cognitive health and need a diagnostic evaluation, a neuropsychologist is your better bet. Their expertise in brain-based behavior, cognitive assessments, and evaluations can be key to determining what – if any – cognitive issues are occurring.

However, if you are struggling with your emotional or mental health, a clinical psychologist might be the better bet. Their expertise in diagnosing and treating various mental, emotional, and behavioral health disorders can be enormously helpful in making positive changes in your life that have positive effects on your mental health.

These professionals don’t work in a vacuum, though. You may find that in some situations, a neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist provide equal benefits for addressing your mental and emotional health.

Related Reading

Copyright © 2024 PsychologySchoolGuide.net. All Rights Reserved. Program outcomes can vary according to each institution's curriculum and job opportunities are not guaranteed. This site is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional help.