Health Psychologist Career Guide

What is Health Psychology?

Health psychology is a discipline that considers the various psychological foundations of physical illness, including emotional, mental, social, and behavioral factors. In some instances, these factors may cause a physical illness while in other situations they may be the result of a physical illness. Either way, health psychology is interested in exploring the interplay between the psychological and physical realms.

Health psychology is not so concerned with the actual ailment with which a person is afflicted. Rather, it focuses on the biopsychosocial factors related to physical and mental health. To provide an example, a health psychologist might examine the psychological factors underlying a person’s addiction to nicotine. While there are certainly physical factors involved in addiction, health psychology is more interested in the psychological processes of reward, stress relief, habit, and conditioning that drive and perpetuate addiction.

Health psychology is similarly concerned with the delivery of health care services. This encompasses a wide array of activities, from improving the channels of communication between health care providers and patients to working with patients to prepare them for major surgeries. There is also a strong advocacy component to health psychology, with particular attention paid to improving access to healthcare for poor, minority, and elderly populations.

What are the Four Branches of Health Psychology?

Health psychology can be divided into four interrelated, yet distinct branches of research, study, and practice:

Community Health Psychology

Community health psychology focuses on large-scale efforts to address health-related issues and improve the overall health of community members. Community health psychologists participate in a wide variety of activities. They might organize community-based programs that address a particular health-related issue, such as depression, diabetes, or autism. Another prime example of a community health psychology campaign would be to inform the public about the ill effects that are caused by underage drinking. The overarching purpose in doing so is to help people change their behavior such that they make healthier decisions.

Public Health Psychology

Closely related to community health psychology is the discipline of public health psychology. This field is much more research focused than other branches of health psychology. Public health psychologists spend the majority of their time collecting and analyzing data, interpreting it, and reporting their findings to various agencies, including non-profits, research facilities, and government agencies. Additionally, public health psychology is concerned with designing and promoting programs that improve public health. In this capacity, public health psychologists might devise prevention programs that seek to reduce harmful behaviors, such as smoking, in order to reduce the incidence of cancer.

Critical Health Psychology

The sub-field of critical health psychology deals primarily with the way in which finances and power impact an individual’s experience of health. There is much emphasis on broad-based sociopolitical issues that heavily determine one’s level of health and access to healthcare, including racism, sexism, poverty, and political oppression. In that regard, much of the focus of critical health psychology is on social justice and ensuring that all people have access to the quality healthcare services they deserve.

Clinical Health Psychology

Clinical health psychology combines some of the features of the other three branches of health psychology into one discipline. Like community health psychology, it seeks to promote positive health behaviors. Like public health psychology, there is a prevention focus that seeks to encourage health through better decision-making. And like critical health psychology, clinical health psychology seeks to make adjustments to the healthcare system and increase access to health-related programs for all people.

Likewise, clinical health psychologists study the intersection of physical and mental health. Much research is conducted into how to understand the interplay between physical and emotional problems, as well as how to treat them in the most effective manner. There is also an emphasis on improving the mental and emotional functioning of individuals that experience severe physical trauma, such as individuals with a long-term illness, like AIDS, or those who are recovering from a major surgery, such as an organ transplant.

What are the Job Duties of a Health Psychologist?

The job duties of health psychologists are widely varied and depend largely on the employment setting. In hospitals and clinics, health psychologists might work to devise programs that promote improved emotional stability for critically or terminally ill patients and their families. Many health psychology services in this setting focus on reducing stress as well, or at the very least, offering healthy ways in which patients and their families can deal with the stressors involved with major illnesses.

In a research setting, such as for a government agency like the Department of Health and Human Services, health psychologists might examine various health-related concerns. This might run the gamut from evaluating the most efficacious manner in which to promote healthy lifestyle choices to teens to studying the causes of diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. Researchers are also interested in learning the best ways to motivate the public to seek medical or mental health treatment.

There are many health psychologists that work in the field of public policy as well. In this capacity, health psychologists focus on addressing important issues in the healthcare sector. This might involve advising stakeholders on necessary improvements to the healthcare system, such as improving access to underserved groups. It might also involve lobbying efforts in order to get legislation passed that would help achieve desired improvements in the delivery of healthcare to the nation’s people. For example, health psychologists would have played in integral role in the development, passage, and implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Some health psychologists are involved in clinical work as well. They may develop and implement interventions or treatments for individuals or groups that have a physical ailment. For example, a clinical health psychologist may conduct group therapy sessions for cancer patients. They may also provide services such as bereavement counseling for families or substance abuse counseling for individuals that are required to participate in treatment.

What is the Job Outlook for Health Psychology?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of psychology, in general, is expected to grow at an 11 percent annual rate in the coming half-decade. However, because of an increasing focus on health and fitness in America, and growing popularity of preventative health rather than reactionary health measures, people employed as health psychologists can expect many more job opportunities in the coming years. This is especially true as hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, and substance abuse treatment facilities continue to hire health psychology professionals. There is also a growing need for health psychologists in the government and education sectors, as their input for directing health policy and educating the next generation of health psychologists continues to be highly sought after.

How Much Does a Health Psychologist Make?

Similar to other disciplines within psychology, the salary associated with health psychology will depend in large part on the employment setting. The Bureau of Labor Statistics places the average annual salary for psychologists at $69,280. However, health psychologists employed in a community setting, such as a non-profit mental health clinic or public health office should expect to make far less than the national average, possibly as low as in the $35,000 per year range, because agencies of that type typically do not have the funding to support higher wages.

However, health psychologists that work in government settings, in academia, or for large health care organizations can expect to make more than the national average. Health psychologists that work independently, either as a consultant or in a clinical private practice will make the highest salary, possibly even well above the $100,000 per year mark.

What Type of Education is Required for a Health Psychologist?

To enter the field of health psychology, one must first complete undergraduate and graduate programs that prepare them for doctorate-level studies.

Undergraduate studies in psychology, social work, or a closely related field are advisable. These programs, though highly generalized in nature, introduce students to the seminal concepts of human behavior. Typical undergraduate programs are approximately 120 semester credit hours and take four years to complete if a student attends full time.

Graduate programs in health psychology typically include a clinical, counseling, or a research-focused track. While the specific track a student takes will determine their coursework, generally speaking, graduate level studies focus on advanced coursework in psychological principles, including abnormal behavior, therapeutic techniques, research, and of course, health psychology topics. Graduate programs vary widely in terms of the credit hours and length of study, from around 30 semester credits and two to three years of study in some programs, to more than 60 semester credits and three to five years of study.

Doctorate programs in health psychology typically last five years and include a one-year supervised internship in the field. Coursework usually includes studies in clinical health psychology, community health, occupational health, behavioral epidemiology, and behavioral medicine. Post-doctoral training may also be required, depending on the employment setting. Medical and health centers often require health psychologists to have additional training in behavioral health and medicine, and educational institutions may similarly require these post-doctoral studies.

Certification as a clinical health psychologist is available through the American Board of Professional Psychology, and licensure is available in most states. However licensure requirements will vary, and depending on the employment setting, certification and licensure may not even be required. However, generally, the best job opportunities are reserved for individuals with a doctorate/licensure. Furthermore, in most states, licensure is mandatory for counseling services and independent practice.

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