What’s the Difference between the Clinical Interview and Full-On Counseling or Psychotherapy?


I know my obsession with all things clinical interviewing is abnormal. This means I already know that most humans on the planet will have no interest in my hashing out the details and differences between clinical interviewing and psychotherapy. So, why then do I persist on blogging about such things? Well, the answer is simple: Obsessions are thoughts and compulsions are behaviors. Therefore, obsessions and compulsions go together like beans and rice. And so, as George Bush senior might have said, “It wouldn’t be prudent to not follow my clinical interviewing obsessions with a clinical interviewing behavior or two.” Now that I think of it, I’m certain that’s exactly what GWB I would have said, had he been asked about this very important situation.

There is, of course, the other reason. I’m revising (along with Rita) our Clinical Interviewing text to put it into the 6th edition. While doing so I have intermittent inspirations to post some of the new material we’re adding here and there. I think to myself . . . “this is the 6th edition of one of the most profound and exciting textbooks of all time and so I’m sure there might be 6 people out there who are interested in reading about what we’re writing.” Then again, as most of us know from either psychological research or common sense, it’s super-easy for me to fool myself into thinking other people are interested in whatever I’m interested in.

Now, having sufficiently fooled or rationalized or intellectualized or inspired myself . . . I present you with our latest thinking on clinical interviewing vs. counseling and psychotherapy.

Clinical interviewing vs. Counseling and Psychotherapy

Students often ask: “What’s the difference between a clinical interview and counseling or psychotherapy?” This is an excellent question and although it’s tempting to answer flatly, “There’s no difference whatsoever” the question deserves a more nuanced response.

The clinical interview is a remarkably flexible and ubiquitous interpersonal process. It’s designed to simultaneously initiate a therapeutic relationship, gather assessment information, and begin therapy. As such, it’s the entry point for clients (or patients) seeking mental health treatment, case management, or any form of counseling. Depending on setting, clinician discipline, theoretical orientation, and other factors, the clinical interview is also commonly known as the intake interview, the initial interview, the psychiatric interview, the diagnostic interview, the first contact or meeting, or any one of a number of other idiosyncratic and theoretically-driven names (Sommers-Flanagan, 2016, in press).

Although it includes therapeutic dimensions, the clinical interview is viewed primarily as an assessment procedure. This is one reason why clinical interviewing is typically included within the assessment portion of course curricula in counseling, psychology, psychiatry, psychiatric nursing, and social work. However, beginning with Constance Fischer’s work on Individualized Psychological Assessment and continuing with Stephen Finn’s articulation and development of therapeutic assessment, it’s also clear that, when done well, clinical assessment is or can be simultaneously therapeutic.

To make matters more complex, every attitude, technique, and strategy described in this text are also the attitudes, techniques, and strategies used in counseling and psychotherapy. Examples (along with their theoretical orientations) range from projective questions (psychoanalytic), therapeutic questions (solution-focused therapy), unconditional positive regard (person-centered), to psychoeducation (cognitive behavior therapy). Even further, some theoretical orientations ignore or de-emphasize assessment to such an extent that the traditional initial clinical assessment interview is transformed completely into an intervention (think solution-focused or narrative). In other cases, the clinical setting or client problem require that single therapy sessions involve an entire course of counseling or psychotherapy. For example,

“. . . in a crisis situation, a mental health professional might conduct a clinical interview designed to quickly establish . . . an alliance, gather assessment data, formulate and discuss an initial treatment plan, and implement an intervention or make a referral.” (Sommers-Flanagan et al., 2015, p. 2)

From this perspective, not only is the clinical interview always the starting point for counseling, psychotherapy, and case management, it also may be the end-point. This is partly because many clients stop treatment after only one therapy session.

There may be other situations where an ordinary therapy session (if there is such a thing) can suddenly transform into a clinical assessment interview. The most common example of this involves suicide assessment interviewing (see Chapter 10). If and when clients begin talking about suicide ideation or exhibiting other suicide risk factors, the usual and customary standard of practice for all mental health and healthcare professionals is to smoothly shift the clinical focus from whatever was happening to a state-of-the-art suicide assessment.

All this leads us to the stunning conclusion: Everything that happens in a full course of counseling or psychotherapy may also occur within the context of a single clinical interview—and vice versa. Although it’s usually the starting point of counseling and psychotherapy, parts of a traditional clinical interview also occur during counseling and psychotherapy, regardless of theoretical orientation. The entire range of attitudes, techniques, and strategies you learn from this text constitute the foundation of skills you’ll need for conducting more advanced and theoretically specific counseling or psychotherapy.

R and J in Field

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