Moving from Clinical to Liberation Psychology

This blog highlights the relationships between four terms. Four different ways of doing psychology:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Community psychology
  • Critical community psychology
  • Liberation psychology.

What these terms mean varies across time and place. So it is worth noting that this blog is being written by a clinical psychologist, from a predominantly UK perspective, often quoting UK and US resources. Other valid and important perspectives are available.

i. Clinical Psychology

According to the “Core Purpose and Philosophy of the Profession​” document, published by the UK Division of Clinical Psychology in 2001: “Clinical Psychology aims to reduce psychological distress and to enhance and promote psychological well-being by the systematic application of knowledge derived from psychological theory and data” (p.2). The document goes on to say that: “the core skills of a clinical psychologist are: assessment, formulation, intervention, and evaluation” (p.2). Reducing distress and promoting well-being could happen in different ways and at different levels. We could assess, formulate, intervene and evaluate at levels beyond the individual. But the document strongly hints at individual or, at best, small group level working.

It also needs to be acknowledged that clinical psychology is not the only way of working with individuals in terms of distress and well-being. Counselling psychology is another pathway which tends to do individual or group work.

ii. Community psychology

Partly in response to the potential limitations of working mainly at the individual level, community psychologies have evolved in different places and contexts around the world. This has often, but not always, been started with professionals like clinical psychologists being dissatisfied with the individual way of working often used in their professions (See Reich et al., 2017, table 1).

The US context provides a good example of this evolution because a specific conference took place in Swampscott, Massachusetts in 1965 when US community psychology was officially founded. As Tebes (2016), points out many now call this the “Swampscott conference” but it was originally titled: the “Boston Conference on the Education of Psychologists for Community Mental Health”. The move away from more individual ways of working towards a community mental health model was a key development. It was also a time when psychologists started to call for more active involvement in solving the wider problems of society. Becoming “social change agents”, even “political activists” (see Tebes, 2016, p.229).

A key idea was prevention, pioneered by psychologists like George Albee. Prevention meant not just treating mental health problems as they arose (amelioration), but preventing the problems from happening in the first place (transformation). It is also useful to note that even at Swampscott there was a desire to move beyond working with mental health problems alone. Hence consciously using terms like social change agents and political activists.

One of many possible definitions of community psychology is: “research and action for social change that is focused on the prevention of human suffering, the reduction of oppression, and the promotion of individual, relational, and societal well-being” (Reich et al., 2007, p.433). It is perhaps useful to compare this definition with the one about clinical psychology above. Both talk about the promotion of well-being – but notice how their range and scope are quite different.

iii. Critical Community Psychology

In more recent decades, critical community psychology has evolved out of community psychology – in a similar way to how community psychology evolved out of clinical psychology. How are the two different? In many ways, critical community psychology is critical of aspects of community psychology. Similar to how community psychology was originally critical of clinical psychology.

One criticism is that community psychology failed to live up to its promise and slipped back into more individual ways of working. It was not political enough, nor radical enough. Back as far as 1992, Orford referred to a content analysis of over 700 community psychology research articles, of which only 8% had employed a level of analysis that was beyond the individual.

Another US example that provides a useful line in the sand is the “Monterey Declaration of Critical Community” (Angelique & Kyle, 2002). The declaration reaffirms the broader focus for the work of community psychologists that includes tackling the impact of governments; social, cultural and institutional arrangements and a repeated focus on social change and promoting social justice.

The declaration also promotes: “Consciousness Raising and Critical Thinking” saying: “Community psychologists should actively foster critical thinking among community members, students and colleagues, and facilitate conscientization whenever possible.” This idea relates directly to Liberation Psychology.

iv. Liberation psychology

Liberation psychology is slightly different. Although it is now being incorporated into community and critical community psychology, its original context is different. It originates from Latin America and draws heavily on liberation theology, critical pedagogy and other radical traditions. The key figure in the founding of Liberation Psychology is Ignacio Martín-Baró: a Jesuit priest and psychologist. He was born in Spain, but spent much of his life working in Latin America, especially El Salvador. His work was prematurely ended when he, five other Jesuit priests, and two others were deliberately murdered by Salvadoran Army soldiers on the campus of Central American University in November 1989.

During his life, Martín-Baró was heavily influenced by Liberation Theology – a movement that developed in the 1960’s in Latin America against poverty and injustice. He was also influenced by the critical pedagogy movement and the works of the Brazillian, Paulo Freire. This is the link to “Consciousness Raising” and “Critical Thinking” from the Monterey Declaration. Freire was both critical of traditional mainstream education; and wanted people to develop critical consciousness (aka conscientization, or conscientização) in order that they could both reflect on and then take action to change their circumstances.

Liberation psychology is also critical of psychology itself. This happens in a similar way to how critical community psychologists are critical of some aspects of community psychology and community psychologists are critical of some aspects of clinical psychology. Martín-Barós critique of mainstream psychology is elegantly summed up at the end of his chapter “Towards a Liberation Psychology”, originally published in 1986, where he writes: “a psychology of liberation requires a prior liberation of psychology, and that liberation can only come from a praxis committed to the sufferings and hopes of the peoples of Latin America” (Martín-Barós, 1996, p.32).

So there we have it, a whistle-stop introduction to the relationships between i. Clinical psychology, ii. Community psychology, iii. Critical community psychology and iv. Liberation psychology.

See also, Thompson (2007), Thompson et al. (2022) and Thompson and Thomas (2023) for some peer-reviewed work which explores aspects of the relationship between clinical psychology and community / critical community psychology. And Thompson et al. (2023) for a study related to community psychology and the climate and ecological emergencies. Finally, these pages (“population level well-being” and “neoliberalism“) host videos made by my students and I, which explore aspects of critical consciousness.


Angelique, H. L., & Kyle, K. (2002). Monterey Declaration of Critical Community Psychology. The Community Psychologist, 35(1), 35–36.

Division of Clinical Psychology. (2001). The Core Purpose and Philosophy of the Profession. British Psychological Society. (Download)

Martín-Baró, I. (1996). Writings for a liberation psychology. Harvard University Press.

Orford, J. (1992). Community Psychology: Theory and Practice (New Ed edition). Wiley-Blackwell.

Reich, S. M., Bishop, B., Carolissen, R., Dzidic, P., Portillo, N., Sasao, T., & Stark, W. (2017). Catalysts and connections: The (brief) history of community psychology throughout the world. In M. A. Bond, I. Serrano-García, C. B. Keys, & M. Shinn, APA handbook of community psychology: Theoretical foundations, core concepts, and emerging challenges, Vol. 1 (pp. 21–66). American Psychological Association.

Reich, S. M., Riemer, M., Prilleltensky, I., & Montero, M. (2007). Conclusion: History and Theories of Community Psychology Around the Globe. In S. M. Reich, M. Riemer, I. Prilleltensky, & M. Montero, International community psychology: History and theories (pp. 415–436). Springer Science.

Tebes, J. K. (2016). Reflections on the Future of Community Psychology from the Generations after Swampscott: A Commentary and Introduction to the Special Issue. American Journal of Community Psychology, 58(3–4), 229–238.

Thompson, M. (2007). Exploring the trainees’ view of a socio-political approach within UK clinical psychology. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 17, 67-83.

Thompson, M., Blumer, Y., Gee, S., Waug, L., & Weaver, Z. (2023). Climate change and community psychology: exploring environmental and wider social challenges. Psicologia di Comunità. 1, 13-33.

Thompson, M., Stuart, J., Vincent, R., & Goodbody, L. (2022). UK clinical and community psychology: Exploring personal and professional connections. Journal of Community Psychology, 50(7), 2904-2922.

Thompson, M., & Thomas, Z. (2023). Critical community psychology: The perceptions of UK undergraduate psychology students. Community Psychology in Global Perspective, 9(2), 125-146.