U of T Psychology enters a new era

UTSC readying to launch graduate training in clinical psychology by Paul Fraumeni

U of T has long been an international leader in psychology research.  In 1891 — just as mental health giant Sigmund Freud was beginning to make his mark — the university established North America’s 10th psychology lab, with a full-fledged department founded in 1927.

The focus of U of T psychology in previous decades has been in  “experimental” research, exploring primarily the workings of the mind/brain from a multitude of perspectives, and producing notable advances in a number of areas — such as Endel Tulving’s renowned discoveries in how human memory works. The Department of Psychology at all three U of T campuses continues to offer outstanding undergraduate and graduate training in experimental psychology but still does not offer a formal training program in clinical psychology.

Very soon, U of T will take a major step further when U of T Scarborough (UTSC) launches a formal graduate program in clinical psychology.

“I’m excited that the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychology has decided to develop a formal graduate program in clinical psychology, which has been the aspiration of many in the department for years,”  says UTSC professor Michael Bagby, who is also a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute. Bagby joined UTSC in 2011 and has been instrumental in designing the new program.

Collaborating with Bagby in the proposed UTSC clinical program are psychology professors Anthony Ruocco, Marc Fournier, Amanda Uliaszek, and Konstantine Zakzanis. There is a search underway for two more clinical faculty — one at the rank of full professor and the other a clinical lecturer — and these new faculty hires are expected to join the existing clinical faculty in July 2013, bringing the full complement to seven full-time clinical faculty. In addition to this complement, nearly 20 other U of T faculty, most of whom have their primary university appointments in the Department of Psychiatry and/or academic hospitals, will be cross-appointed to the UTSC clinical program. Although the program will be housed at UTSC, clinical faculty (and students) from all three campuses will participate.

Bagby explains that while experimental and clinical psychology streams both involve research, the key difference with the clinical side is that it also is focussed on the provision of care to those with mental disorders and on identifying the causes of these conditions.

“The image that comes to many people’s minds is of a patient receiving psychotherapy in a clinical psychologist’s office. That is a common part of clinical psychology, but it’s much more than that. The faculty members in the clinical psychology program train clinicians who are also scientists. We use the body of scientific literature examining mental disorders to inform our models of treatment and assessment. ”

The program will be relatively small and highly selective, admitting no more than eight students in its first year.  “It will grow in future years, but we will need to keep the program small so as to provide intensive instruction in both research methods and the development of clinical skills, including psychotherapy training and the diagnosis and assessment of mental disorders. Toward the end of their graduate training, students will also be required to complete a year-long internship, typically in a hospital setting.”


UTSC’s clinical psychology team: (from left) Michael Bagby, Amanda Uliaszek, Anthony Ruocco, Marc Fournier, Konstantine Zakzanis

Says Ruocco:  “It is an intensive undertaking because you have to be not just an excellent researcher but also an excellent clinician. It’s rewarding in the sense that research is informing your care, with the ultimate goal of alleviating the psychological pain of those suffering with mental disorders.”

Training in psychotherapy, for example, requires significant time and work.  “Most people think that a psychologist just closes the door and talks with the patient,”  says Bagby.  “But scientifically informed psychotherapies are typically highly structured. There are many different types of psychotherapeutic interventions. For example, empirically supported psychotherapies such as interpersonal psychotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy are highly effective in the treatment of major depression.”

“Similarly,”  says Ruocco,  “dialectical behaviour therapy, which is also an empirically supported psychotherapy, is highly effective in treating those with borderline personality disorder.  All of these evidence-based psychotherapies require significant training, and a high level of expertise is needed to implement them effectively.”

Ruocco notes that the launch of the program is timely given the need for psychologists.

“Ontario, per capita, has the smallest number of licensed psychologists in Canada. This is at a time when people are experiencing significant stress and many of those suffering from mental disorders are currently not treated. That’s why it is so important for U of T to develop this program. U of T is particularly well positioned to embark on such an initiative given its association with our nine partner hospitals, which provide opportunities for ‘hands-on’ clinical and research training to supplement classroom instruction.”

Bagby sees the launch of the clinical psychology program as  “the essence of what a comprehensive research university can do — provide top-notch education and intensive research training in an area that makes a tangible impact on the health of Canadians.  We’re eager to get started on this program.”