What is Health Psychology?

what is health psychology

Posted October 2019 by Sean Jackson, B.A. Social Studies Education, B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; 8 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 10+. Questions on health psychology? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

When asking, “what is health psychology?” it’s important to take a macro view and consider all the different facets of this field.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), health psychology examines social, psychological, and biological factors and how they impact the health of individuals.

For example, a health psychologist might explore why some women don’t get mammograms, even though they know they are at risk for the development of breast cancer.

In other words, health psychology seeks to understand how psychological and behavioral forces impact physical health. What beliefs (a psychological factor) do some women have that prevents them from getting mammograms? What habits (a behavioral factor) do they have that influences their decision not to get a mammogram?

Not only do health psychologists study these various components of health, wellness, and illness, but they also utilize their knowledge and understanding of psychology to promote healthy behaviors, prevent illnesses from developing, and make recommendations for improving health care systems.

Scope of Health Psychology

Answering our “what is health psychology?” question should begin with an examination of the scope of health psychology.

On the one hand, health psychology entails research into health-related behaviors. For example, health psychologists might explore the underlying motivations that lead people to choose to eat junk food rather than eating healthy food, even if both are easily acquired.

On the other hand, much research focuses on what people do that is healthy, like examining the eating and exercise regimen of top athletes to learn more about the specific factors that allow people to not only be healthy but be in peak physical condition.

In addition to researching critical health-related topics, health psychology is tasked with promoting healthy behaviors.

For example, a health psychologist might be involved in the creation of health policies that address a lack of quality healthcare for particular populations, like the urban poor or rural residents who might not have easy access to local healthcare providers.

Likewise, health psychology encompasses an illness prevention component. A health psychologist working in this capacity might work with a team of other stakeholders to create a health promotion program for youth that teaches kids about the dangers of smoking.

Health programs like this often include an educational component, such as focusing on the dangers of smoking, as well as a skill-building component, such as helping children develop refusal skills they can use if they are ever presented with an opportunity to smoke.

Regardless of the application of health psychology, be that in research or practice, one thing remains constant – health psychology seeks to consider a wide-range of factors to determine why people behave the way they do and why they make the choices they make as they pertain to their overall health and well-being.

Role of Health Psychologists

The specific role of health psychologists depends on the application of their work.

For example, where a health psychologist in a research role might investigate the psychological effects of chronic illness, a health psychologist working in private practice might have more of a counseling role, such as conducting group therapy sessions for people with a substance use disorder.

Many people that work in this field are employed by hospitals, clinics, and other related entities where they might conduct interviews with patients to get a better understanding of their health choices and motivations or meet with patients and their families to provide counseling services after a terminal diagnosis is made.

Still other health psychologists work in an advocacy capacity, such as championing affordable health care to reduce health care expenses, particularly for low-income individuals. Some health psychologists approach their work in another way, by providing their expertise to government agencies and non-profit organizations to guide healthcare policy.

For example, a health psychologist might study common health concerns, like rising rates of obesity in the United States, explore the factors that have led to a rise in obesity, and recommend possible interventions that could be deployed to reverse that trend.

Famous Health Psychologists

Perhaps the most famous health psychologists are the first ones who paved the way for health psychology to develop into a separate and recognized field of psychology.

Health psychology as a distinct discipline is fairly new in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t until 1969 that the topic was broached in earnest, when William Schofield, one of the few psychologists working in the area of health psychology at the time, sent a report to the APA entitled The Role of Psychology in the Delivery of Health Services.

In his report, Schofield noted that the vast majority of psychological research separated mental health and physical health as being two separate entities. He argued that one’s psychological well-being could have a distinct impact on one’s physical health and vice versa.

As a result of Schofield’s report, the APA formed a task force in 1973 to evaluate how psychologists could use their education and training to help people manage behaviors related to health and illness. Likewise, the APA sought to better understand how psychology could be used to help people manage physical ailments and train healthcare workers to deliver services to patients more effectively.

In 1977, the APA officially added health psychology as its own division. At the APA health psychology divisional conference, another famous health psychologist, Joseph Matarazzo, helped define health psychology’s direction as a field.

There, he posited that health psychology should be focused not just on the promotion and maintenance of health, but also on the prevention of illnesses, the treatment of illnesses, and on improving the healthcare system.

While Schofield and Matarazzo might not have the level of name recognition as John B. Watson or B.F. Skinner, they are nonetheless important figures in health psychology and were instrumental in its development.

Health Psychology Topics

The list of health psychology topics is as varied as it is long.

As mentioned earlier, there are ample opportunities for research in health psychology and applying health psychology in clinical, medical, and government settings.

Below is a sampling of health psychology topics that are commonly explored:

  • Public health issues, such as examining the factors that lead to PTSD among veterans or exploring the most effective methods to get people to wear seatbelts.
  • Medical issues, such as advising medical staff on the best ways to communicate with patients and devising strategies for improving patient compliance with taking medications.
  • Examining health policy, such as analyzing how current health policy can create inequalities between and among communities. 
  • Exploring the link between disease and mental health, like probing how a physical illness such as heart disease can lead to the development of anxiety or depression.
  • Family health practices, such as analyzing the underlying motivations of parents who do not immunize their children.
  • Illness prevention, like devising programs that seek to reduce the number of children and teens that use e-cigarettes.

Regardless of the specific area of emphasis, health psychology is always focused on the ever-important link between psychology, biology, behavior, and social factors.

Health Psychology Jobs

Given that health psychology is such a diverse field, there are many different types of health psychology jobs available. Below is just a sampling of careers one can pursue with the appropriate education and training in health psychology:

  • Community health psychology emphasizes the need to work with at-risk communities to develop prevention and intervention techniques that seek to reduce illness and promote healthier living. For example, a community health psychologist might devise interventions for reducing the incidence of teen pregnancy in suburban neighborhoods.
  • Public health psychology is typically associated with work for government and non-profit entities that develop health programs and devise health policy. A public health psychologist might be part of a task force with the National Institutes of Health that is charged with creating a program for promoting healthier eating habits among elderly people.
  • Clinical health psychology focuses on researching and implementing services to individuals and groups that promote health and treat, manage, and prevent illness. For example, a clinical health psychologist might provide individual counseling services to a teenage client who is experiencing extreme stress as a result of having bad acne.
  • Occupational health psychology is a discipline concerned with health and safety in the workplace. A worker in this field might develop and implement a behavior change program to improve employee productivity while reducing the incidence of work-related injuries.

Again, this is not a complete list of occupations you can pursue in the field of health psychology, but it nonetheless provides a good overview of the wide-ranging possibilities for careers in this field.

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