What Is Rehabilitation Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 05, 2022
3 min read

If you’re living with a disability due to an injury or a long-term health condition, you might not be able to do all of things that you used to do. It could take a toll on your emotions or on your mental health.

Seeing a specialist called a rehabilitation psychologist might help. They can teach you ways to overcome the psychological, social, and work-related challenges you might face when you have a disabling injury or condition. The skills you learn could boost your quality of life.

Rehab psychology can help motivate you, lift your self-esteem, increase your independence, and make you more able to adjust to the physical, emotional, or mental health changes you’re going through. The psychologists will make a treatment plan just for you based on your unique lifestyle and needs.

They help people who have a wide variety of health issues, like:

They also diagnose and treat mental health conditions, like:

  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Somatic symptom disorder (a condition that brings on physical symptoms due to psychological distress)

They start by checking on your thinking-related skills and psychological well-being. Then, depending on your needs, they can treat you with options like:

  • One-on-one or group therapy (including counseling and talk therapy)
  • Skill building to maximize your thinking-related abilities and make up for any shortfalls (also called cognitive remediation)
  • Tactics to help you take charge of any issues that affect your behavior
  • Tips to help you use any assistive tools or technology better
  • Lifestyle changes that boost your health

Your rehab psychologist will consider your preferences, needs, and resources as they come up with your treatment plan. They should also be respectful of things like:

  • Your race or ethnicity
  • Language
  • Age
  • Gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Social network
  • Where you live
  • Socioeconomic status (based on things like your education level, income, and job)

Along with helping you, your rehabilitation psychologist can teach your close family members – or a caregiver if you have one – how best to support you as you adjust and adapt to your new normal. They can offer training, education, and support services to other important people in your life, too, like teachers, bosses, co-workers, religious leaders, and friends.

To make sure you get the most out of your treatment, they can also work closely with other specialists who might be on your health care team, like:

  • Physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors (physiatrists)
  • Speech therapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physical therapists

With your team’s help, your rehab psychologist will aim to help you feel your best as you do daily tasks, socialize, work or go to school, and take part in activities you enjoy.

They need to have a doctoral degree in psychology. They also need to have had a lot of pre- and post-doctoral training in hospitals, clinics, or other places where people get health care.

Rehab psychologists who offer clinical services also must be licensed in the state or province where they practice.

These specialists work in a variety places, including:

  • Hospitals and health care centers
  • Inpatient and outpatient physical rehab units or centers
  • Assisted living and long-term care facilities
  • Specialty clinics (like ones for pain and cardiac rehab)
  • Community agencies that help people with specific disabilities or chronic health conditions

You can ask your doctor or another member of your care team to refer you to a rehabilitation psychologist. You can find a list of board-certified rehab psychologists through the American Board of Professional Psychology. You can also contact the American Psychological Association for a list of rehab psychologists by calling 800-374-2721 or 202-336-5500.

Everyone’s different. There’s no ballpark number, since rehab psychologists treat people with a range of disabilities and mental health conditions.

Regardless of how many sessions you need, a psychologist can help you over time by changing your treatment plan as your needs change.