February is psychology month

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February is psychology month in Canada and 2013 marks the eighth annual event providing an opportunity to educate the public about psychology. This article focuses on the role of a psychologist and finding the right psychologist for you.  

As referenced on the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) webpage (www.cpa.ca), “a psychologist studies how we think, feel and behave from a scientific viewpoint and applies this knowledge to help people understand, explain and change their behaviour.” Psychologists specialize in certain areas including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, addictions, developmental disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. As clinicians, psychologists may work with individuals, families, organizations, conduct research, and/or teach.  

People constantly ask me: what is the difference between a psychiatrist, social worker, and psychologist? While there is certainly overlaps in terms of assisting individuals improve their well-being, there are also vast differences. I will provide a simplistic explanation.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor specializing in mental illnesses with the ability to prescribe medication. A social worker, in addition to offering individual and couple counselling, specializes in systems including family, social and cultural systems. A psychologist is trained to assess, diagnose and treat mental illness.

For example, a client requests help for their anxiety. The psychologist would query symptoms to determine is this generalized anxiety, a specific phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, social phobia, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, or just plain normal anxiety appropriate for the situation? The course of treatment is different for each diagnosis and is so much more than simply talking about the problem, and may include recommendations to consult for a medication trial.  

Once you decide that you would like to meet with a psychologist, finding the right one for you is the next decision. You may need a referral from your family physician to see a psychologist on staff at a local hospital or you can self-refer to a psychologist in private practice. Your workplace may have an Employee Assistance Program that you can access or your insurance plan may provide psychological coverage, both of which reduce out of pocket expenses.

Treatment or psychotherapeutic approaches should be empirically based, which means that it is supported by scientific evidence (e.g. cognitive-behavioural, dialectical behaviour therapy, EMDR).

As in any relationship, finding the right match for you can make therapy even more beneficial.  It’s helpful to find someone who you connect with and have a good working relationship. Some people prefer to have a therapist who is supportive and gentle, while others would like someone who is upfront and perhaps a bit more confrontational. Therapy can be an uncomfortable experience and meeting with someone who you view as kind, non-judgement and you feel understands you can minimize discomfort.

I typically advise my clients that I would prefer to refer them elsewhere than they not receive the help that they need. Also, I ask that they give me feedback to help me do a better job. I learned this from a client early on in my career. She was generous enough to return for a second session to advise me that she had decided to see another therapist. I had been very focused on problem-solving the situation. She shared that she had needed someone to understand what she was experiencing and explore her emotions rather than try and fix the problem right away. What a gift!


Regardless of who you choose, I highly recommend seeing someone who is a regulated professional in the area you reside. In Nova Scotia, psychologists are registered with The Nova Scotia Board of Examiners in Psychology (http://nsbep.org), whose mandate is to ensure that psychologists are properly trained and qualified for the protection of the public. There are approximately 500 psychologists currently registered with NSBEP. For more information, I recommend websites: Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), NSBEP and the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia (APNS) whose resources are worth accessing for more information about psychologists and their roles.  

Happy psychology month!

Jeannette Kennedy, M.Sc., is a registered psychologist whose private practice is located in Stewiacke.  She can be contacted at 902-957-1987, kennedyj@eastlink.ca, or http://jeannettekennedy.com/.

Organizations: Canadian Psychological Association, Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia, The Nova Scotia Board of Examiners

Geographic location: Canada, Nova Scotia, Stewiacke

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