A rehabilitation psychologist works with people who are facing disability and chronic illness to help them address psychological issues that might arise, whether a condition is congenital or newly acquired. These psychology professionals work in places such as hospitals, clinics, walk-in counseling centers, rehabilitation facilities and assisted living facilities. Most of them have doctorate degrees in the field, and many belong to professional organizations of rehabilitation psychologists. Membership in such organizations provides opportunities for continuing education and networking.
Chronic or acute illness and disability can cause significant psychological disruptions in a patient's life. For patients who have just become ill or disabled because of life events, there often is an adjustment period during which the patient grows accustomed to significant life changes. For example, a person who has a spinal cord injury might need to adjust to using a wheelchair for mobility, or a person who has been newly diagnosed with diabetes might need to get accustomed to controlling the disease with diet, medications and other activities.
Patients who were born with congenital conditions can also experience psychological distress at various times in their lives. This can be especially common during transitions such as starting college or entering the job market. The services of a rehabilitation psychologist can help someone process the emotions that might arise and develop coping techniques to manage feelings of stress, depression and emotional overload. The psychologist can offer a variety of kinds of therapy to manage stress, pain and confusion.
In a rehabilitation facility, a rehabilitation psychologist might meet with patients to discuss the nature of their injuries. The psychologist can talk with the patients about rehabilitation and recovery options such as re-training to acquire new job skills as well as learning adaptive techniques for performing tasks. This could include things such as teaching a new wheelchair user how to cook safely or helping a person who has cognitive impairments after a stroke to relearn how to speak. The psychologist might also meet with friends and family members to discuss the situation and provide them with tips on helping the patient adjust.
Each patient is radically different. A rehabilitation psychologist might interact with a broad number of patients who all feel very differently about their conditions and must adapt the treatment style to the patient for the best results. This work can involve weeks, months or years in therapy with a patient to work on various issues that might arise. The rehabilitation psychologist might also help the patient get into support groups and other community-based activities that might help with his or her adjustment.