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Shoulds & Should Nots

What Does a Psychologist Do?

Psychologists provide services both to assess and treat psychological problems. As part of the treatment process, psychologists provide counseling, psychotherapy, consultation, behavior modification, biofeedback or hypnosis to individuals, groups, organizations, or businesses for a fee in order to relieve psychological and emotional problems. As part of the assessment process, psychologists also develop, administer, and interpret tests of mental abilities, aptitudes, neuropsychological functioning, vocational interests, personality characteristics, and motivations in order to help understand or explain certain behaviors and emotions.  Psychologists also provide services such as consulting with individuals or groups, supervision, and teaching.


How Do I Choose a Psychologist?

  1. First, decide with which part of your life you want help---your children, spouse, elderly parents, child custody, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, etc.
  2. Look for a psychologist trained in that area. Here are some ways to conduct such a search:

a. Ask someone you know who has been in therapy, feels good about the experience and has changed in ways you consider positive.

b. Call your family doctor, attorney, minister, school or local crisis intervention service (in the telephone book yellow pages). These persons can refer you to psychologists experienced in dealing with your particular situation.

c. Ask friends and relatives or health professionals for recommendations.

d. Check with your health insurance company for a list of authorized providers.

e. Call the professional associations and ask for some referrals to psychologists who specialize in your specific area of need.

  1. Always check the psychologist's license status by making an inquiry to your jurisdiction's board of psychology. Find out if the individual is licensed and if there has been any discipline taken against the psychologist.
  2. Talk with the psychologist, either in person or on the phone to see if you feel comfortable working with the psychologist.

What Are Psychologists Not Supposed to Do?

It's good to remember that - as happens in other professions - some practitioners bend or break the rules. Unfortunately, by doing so, psychologists can directly or indirectly cause harm to their patients. Here are some things that psychologists, psychological assistants or registered psychologists should never do:

  • Have any type of sexual contact with a patient, including inappropriate touching, kissing, or sexual intercourse. This type of behavior is never appropriate.
  • Violate a patient's confidentiality unless there is risk of harm to others or oneself.
  • Provide services for which they have not been educated and trained, or for which they are currently receiving supervision.
  • Abuse drugs.
  • Commit fraud or other crimes.
  • Pay or accept compensation for referral of patients.
  • Make false or exaggerated claims about their services or skills.
  • Act in an unprofessional, unethical, or negligent manner.
  • Assist someone in the unlicensed practice of psychology.
  • Focus therapy on their own problems, rather than on those of the patient.
  • Serve in multiple roles: for example, by having social relationships with patients, lending them money, employing them, etc. This may confuse the patient and often interferes with treatment.
  • Hire a patient to do work for the psychologist, or bartering services to pay for therapy.
  • Invite a patient to lunch, dinner, or other social activities.
  • Confide in a patient (for example, about the psychologist's love life, work problems, etc.).
  • Rely on a patient for personal and emotional support.
  • Give or receive significant gifts.
  • Suggest or support the patient’s increased isolation from social support systems, increasing dependency on the psychologist.
  • Any violation of the patient’s rights as a consumer.

Because of its particular potential for harm, professional therapy should never involve sexualized interaction between a patient and a professional. That includes verbal sexual advances or suggestion or jokes, sexual harassment or any other kind of sexual contact or behavior. Sexual contact of any kind between a psychologist and a patient (and in most cases even a former patient) is unethical and grounds for disciplinary sanctions. Additionally, in some jurisdictions, such activity is a criminal offense. Harm may arise both from the psychologist’s exploitation of the patient to fulfill his or her own needs or desires, and from the psychologist’s loss of the objectivity necessary for effective therapy. It is also unethical for a psychologist to terminate the therapeutic relationship established with a client in order to pursue a social or sexual relationship with the client. All psychologists are trained and educated to know that this kind of behavior is inappropriate and can result in license revocation.

By the nature of their profession, psychologists are trusted and respected, and it is not uncommon for patients to admire them and feel attracted to them. However, a psychologist who accepts or encourages these normal feelings in a sexual way, even if the patient is the one who begins the discussion regarding sex—or tells a patient that sexual involvement is part of therapy—is using the trusted therapy relationship to take advantage of the patient. National data indicate that once sexual involvement begins, therapy for the patient ends, because the professional can no longer be helpful as an objective therapist. The original issues that brought the patient to therapy are postponed, neglected, and sometimes lost.

How can a patient prevent being treated inappropriately by a psychologist?

  1. Acknowledge the right to receive competent, professional services, and to be free from unprofessional behavior.
  2. When choosing a psychologist, check with the licensing board to see if the psychologist is licensed and if the license is under suspension or probation. Also check on any complaints filed with a professional association and with your county court to see if any malpractice lawsuit judgments are on file against the psychologist.
  3. Question any action that may seem exploitive, harmful, unprofessional or inappropriate.
  4. End a relationship that no longer seems safe or helpful.

American Psychological Assocation Code of Ethics

Canadian Psychological Assocation Code of Ethics


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