What is a psychologist? Psychologist and patient in session

A Day in the Life of Jocelyn Meza, PhD, Psychologist at UCLA Health

As a science-practitioner, UCLA’s Jocelyn Meza, PhD, does research in addition to clinical work. She focuses on culturally adapting suicide interventions for ethnoracially minoritized youth. A day in her life includes developing research projects, seeing patients, and collecting data to examine sociocultural predictors of suicide and self-harm. Her ultimate goal, simply put, is determining which treatments help people and which do not.

She’s currently on a team evaluating an intervention designed to reduce self-harm and suicide among adolescents and young adults who come into the emergency department for suicide risk.

When she’s not conducting research, she spends her time in the clinic, providing individual and group-based therapy.

What Does a Psychologist Do?

A psychologist helps patients improve mental health and live more fulfilling lives. They equip people with core skills they can use throughout their lives.

Dr. Meza explains what she does by reminding people to look at psychology the way they look at any other medical field.

“When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they go to an oncologist to get help treating and managing that cancer. When someone is struggling with stress or mood issues, they go to a psychologist to get help treating and managing those issues.”

For Dr. Meza, the most meaningful and rewarding aspects of her work involve demystifying and de-stigmatizing mental health treatment, especially in communities with a deep-seated mistrust or misunderstanding of therapy.

“For example, we’ll talk about the symptoms of depression and how those might look different for different people,” Dr. Meza explains. “We’ll talk about how treatment isn’t something negative, that it’s really just learning how to manage life more effectively. You can see the switch go on in their brain when they get it. After that, they’re like, ‘Why isn’t everybody in therapy?’”

She finds fulfillment in observing patients discover the benefits of their newly learned skills.

“Opposite action is a good example,” she says, referring to the idea that improving certain emotions requires behaving in ways contrary to natural inclinations.

“In depression, most people want to isolate themselves, but going out and seeing people will actually be more helpful for improving that feeling.”

Data-based measurement helps Dr. Meza show patients how well therapy—including the work they put in outside of sessions—works.

“I do a symptom inventory depending on a patient’s goal. So if it’s feeling more present in everyday life, I track that and print out worksheets to show their overall progress.”

Just as psychologists and their patients may find encouragement in progress, they may also be discouraged if that progress doesn’t appear fast enough. Many people are trying to adjust thinking patterns from a lifetime of brain development. Dr. Meza finds staying motivated, and helping patients do the same, the biggest challenge of practicing psychology.

“I can’t expect patients to relearn so many things in a few weeks. You have to be patient, and help people understand they really have to practice their skills in between sessions. Happiness is a muscle you have to practice every day.”

Psychiatrist vs Psychologist - What’s the Difference?

Dr. Meza says the differences between psychiatrists and psychologists start with the degrees they earn.

“Psychiatrists earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD). Psychologists earn either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).”

They also play different roles in treating mental health. Psychiatrists primarily provide medication management. Some provide therapy as well, but they generally look at patient issues through a medical or biological lens.

“Psychologists,” Dr. Meza says, “look at patient issues through a behavioral lens. We focus on delivering and providing treatments that best fit a patient’s particular problem areas. For example, if someone comes into the clinic with depression and anxiety, we know the best treatment is probably cognitive behavioral therapy.”

The nature of the different interventions psychiatrists and psychologists provide also means they see patients at different frequencies.

“To provide psychotherapeutic work, we may see patients once a week for an hour. We're teaching them skills, and in order for us to teach them skills and see if they work, we monitor their behaviors each week.”

To provide medication management, psychiatrists may see patients only once every few months, depending on medication response.

Differences aside, psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as other providers, often collaborate to help patients achieve optimal mental health.

“Sometimes, we have patients who aren’t responding well to therapy, so we look at environmental factors that may be contributing to that. For example, we may refer a patient without adequate access to food to a social worker or a patient with chronic pain impacting their ability to get mood-boosting exercise to a primary care doctor.”

(What Is a Neuropsychologist? Click the link to learn more...)

How to Become a Psychologist

To become a psychologist, you must earn a PhD or a PsyD, complete an internship, and get licensed by your practice state’s board.

Dr. Meza says observing people from different cultural backgrounds helped her realize she might want to pursue a career in psychology.

“I’ve always loved just sitting at cafes and observing people.”

Family experiences strengthened her passion for the field.

“There were a lot of mental health difficulties in my family, but they were never openly discussed. I remember growing up, observing that, and trying to figure out life. I wanted to understand everything better.”

She declared a psychology major immediately after starting undergrad at UCLA.

“I didn’t waiver. I’ve heard people say that’s how you know when you’ve found the right career: You’re good at it and you also enjoy doing it every day.”

Dr. Meza says aspiring psychologists should, first and foremost, be good listeners.

“You need to listen and also really hear someone. The goal is reading between the lines but also asking for clarification when necessary to truly understand the patient and also where their struggles are coming from.”

Hopeful psychologists will also benefit from humility.

“We need to be humble in our approach and our understanding of patients, to accept when we’re not correct, when we misunderstand patients, or when they tell us something isn’t working for them. Being open to feedback is very helpful.”

How Much Do Psychologists Make?

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual psychologist salary in the U.S. is $81,040. However, science practitioners who work at academic medical centers, like Dr. Meza, can make upwards of $150,000 a year.

Mental Health Awareness Month

For Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr. Meza wants everyone to remember that even the best therapists cannot read minds.

“We can’t read minds but we do work very hard to understand them. We’re here to understand and help.”

More importantly, she wants people to know there’s no shame in getting help. Feeling better is possible, and professional help is what many people need to get there.