What are the personal qualities, values and beliefs we think a clinical psychologist needs to have?

I think this question has relevance to many people … people with a mental health problem thinking about seeking help and embarking on treatment, Mental Health Trust managers advertising for a new Clinical Psychologist to join their team, training programmes selecting future Clinical Psychology trainees etc.

This piece is very much a personal opinion, based on my experience of having OCD, my huge fears of the mental health system, my experience of seeking help and later having cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) at a specialist NHS clinic.

I think a therapist’s knowledge about, and skills and experience in, CBT and how it is applied to a particular condition are absolutely vital. I think lack of sufficient knowledge, experience and skill on the part of the therapist is a very important reason why some people with OCD do not get better or do not do as well as they could after CBT. Over time I have become acutely aware of how fortunate I was to have a therapist who was so knowledgeable and skilled and experienced in specialist CBT for OCD.

However, I feel I was only able to access the immense knowledge, experience and skills he had because I felt comfortable with him as a fellow human being. And not simply comfortable enough to have a passing chat with … but someone I came to trust at a very deep level … someone I trusted enough to begin talking about terror, pain, despair, intense regret, and loss. About rubbish, shit, urine, blood, and semen. And to begin to believe that after decades of OCD, just possibly, things could be different. Someone who could persuade me to take risks, big risks. And later share my elation as I began life after OCD.

I think being a clinical psychologist is an extraordinary job; difficult, complex, and immensely rewarding. I think it requires people with very special, and at the same time very down-to-earth, qualities and values.

I think sometimes therapy doesn’t get going, or isn’t as helpful as it could be, or breaks down, because a therapist does not have the necessary personal qualities or values.

Below I have tried writing down, in no particular order, different qualities and core personal values and beliefs which I think it is important for a clinical psychologist to have. I guess each of us would come up with a different combination of qualities and values that we’d be looking for, but I suspect too there may be big areas of agreement … we’re talking about fundamental human stuff. What would be on your list?

Personal qualities

Humble – able to apologise freely
Able to relate easily to people in all sorts of situations / from all sorts of backgrounds
Wise – has experienced enough of life themselves (in a non-clinical way), and reflected on it, to be able to relate easily to a wide range of people and
Natural – doesn’t use a professional façade
Honest – really honest!
Willingness to accompany people in painful situations, be alongside them with and through the pain
Not scared of people’s emotional pain / fear / anger
Capable of being deeply moved during therapy, and comfortable about showing that / sharing that
Open – sharing own personal experience where appropriate
Has experience of / can remember being vulnerable her/himself
Listens genuinely / respectfully
Able to interrupt respectfully
Makes people feel understood / valued
Emotional strength
Inspires hope
Inspires people around them, including clients
Supportive to people around them, including clients

Personal values / beliefs

Treats clients, and everyone else, as completely equal human beings
Sees client as a whole person and treats her / him in that way
Sees their role more as a highly skilled and compassionate guide / teacher rather than a clinician
Deep commitment to their clients
Deep commitment to the principles of the NHS
Opposition to private practice, and commitment to not doing private practice themselves, now or in the future
Awareness of power imbalance between client and clinical psychologist / mental health system more generally
Willingness to challenge institutional policies / practices / culture which degrade clients
Willingness to challenge colleagues who are insensitive / behave unethically towards their clients / are not using evidence-based treatment with their clients
Can give examples of where they’ve been willing to stand up and be counted, particularly in a mental health context
Willingness to express anger, if necessary, on issues of institutional / individual practice
Independent thinker
Free spirit

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