Health Psychologist

At no other time in history has the connection between mental and physical health been more understood, and psychologists are at the center of that connection, the core professionals who bring together the science of the mind with the science of the body.

More specifically, health psychologists are the scientists who today explore the psychological and behavioral aspects of health. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), health psychologists focus on the following:

  • The promotion and maintenance of preventive health practices, and the diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of physical and mental illness.
  • Researching the psychological, social, emotional, and behavioral factors in physical and mental illness.
  • Contributing to improving the health care system, and formulating health policy.

Given the above summary, health psychologists generally focus in one of two areas: 1) preventing diseases and illnesses; 2) helping people recover from and live with diseases and illnesses.

Promoting prevention

In the Health Psychology article “Prevention and Health Promotion: Decades of Progress, New Challenges, and an Emerging Agenda,” daily habits are identified as key health behaviors.

Health psychologists try and answer the following types of questions through research:*

  • How do people adapt to chronic illness?
  • What factors influence healthy eating?
  • How is stress linked to heart disease?
  • Why do patients often not take their medication as prescribed?

*Cited from The British Psychological Society website.

Behaviors such as smoking, lack of exercise and activity, poor diet, and alcohol and illegal substance consumption are the leading contributors to ill health and morbidity in all industrialized countries, according to author C. David Jenkins, PhD, of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues.

Therefore, he writes, “the determinants of these behaviors and interventions designed to improve health behavior have been a central focus of theory, research, and practice in the field.”

Jenkins also states that an increasing amount of health psychology research now focuses on psychosocial risk factors for health problems, including factors such as social isolation, socioeconomic status, personality characteristics, and negative emotions. For example, research now shows high levels of stress and negative emotions directly correlate with disease and illness.

However, the good news is that the research also shows that risky health behaviors can be altered, and recognized, and the work of health psychologists fully supports effective interventions that bring about positive change.

Health psychologists support healthy behaviors and prevention by working at one of three levels:

  1. at the organizational and community level;
  2. nationally at the policy level through public health initiatives; and
  3. individually and in small groups through clinical practice.

Organizational and Public Health Levels

All health psychologists work to promote health prevention. However, it’s the health psychologists working at the organizational and community, and national levels that focus almost exclusively or to a great extent on designing and implementing prevention programs.

The number of programs health psychologists work on covers a wide range of issues, such as such as teen pregnancy prevention programs, substance abuse prevention, smoking cessation programs, programs designed to increase exercise and healthy nutrition, to curb obesity, and to curb sexually transmitted diseases – to name only a few.

Working either as consultants or for health care organizations or small firms that specialize in health psychology and physical health issues, these professionals often put together communication campaigns and educational programs designed to target certain behaviors. They also might be called on to do health psychology-related research, and design prevention programs based on that research.

For instance, a nonprofit health care organization would hire a health psychologist with a specialty in obesity when the organization discovers a rising number of patients or community members have significant health issues arising from this condition.

The primary job responsibilities of this psychologist would be to research issues of obesity within the context of the community, its culture and socioeconomic background. In addition the health psychologists would be required to analyze and incorporate results from existing studies on obesity.

A health psychologist hired to work on issues of obesity and conduct research might need to communicate research data in a clear and precise manner to other health care professionals, educators, and other community leaders. And they might be required to publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals, similar to academics conducting similar research at universities.

On the other hand, a health psychologist might work at the national level on issues of obesity. He or she would conduct research on a national or international scope, trying to understand underlying psychosomatic reasons for the disorder.

A typical position would be working for The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute or the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, putting together Federal guidelines on the identification, evaluation, and treatment of overweight and obese individuals.

When working on national health campaigns, whether its for obesity, or other serious health issues, such as HIV/AIDS, or coronary heart disease, health psychologists might get involved with speaking to governors, state legislatures, Congress, schools, and food and agriculture companies.

Whatever the issue, or health concern, the health psychologist contributes the knowledge of how the link between the body’s physiological response to the disease is often informed by the mind. The health psychologist teaches and educates others, disseminating information on how behaviors directly relate to keeping healthy, and living a positive, high quality of life.

Happiness and Health

Happiness appears to have more value than most people realize.

A study appearing in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being stated that it found “clear and compelling evidence” that happy people live longer and experience better health than their peers.

Lead author and University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology Ed Diener, who also is a senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, of Princeton, N.J., analyzed more than 160 studies of human and animal subjects.

Diener states that the evidence points overwhelmingly to the fact that an individual’s subjective well-being – not feeling stressed out or depressed – highly correlates with both longevity and better health.

One study, for example, followed about 5,000 university students for more than 40 years. It found that those who were most pessimistic as students generally died younger than their more positive peers.

Another study followed 180 Catholic nuns from early adulthood to old age, revealing that those who wrote positively about their lives in their early 20s generally outlived those who wrote more negatively.

Animal experiments found that more stressed out animals developed more heart disease, had weaker immune systems, and generally died younger than those living less stressful lives (i.e., living in less crowded conditions).

While we can’t swallow “happiness” like other medicine, as in pill or liquid form, it appears that it might turn out to be the best type of medicine out there. For most, depending on how they perceive happiness, it’s also the least expensive.

Clinical Practice

A second area of specialization for health psychologists is in the applied area, or clinical health psychology. These psychologists use empirically based research techniques to develop strategies for helping ill individuals manage their illnesses.

This often means helping those with chronic illnesses and disabilities learn behavioral techniques to improve their quality of life, and possibly reduce their reliance on medications.

Chronic pain management is a main practice area for many working the field of Health Psychology. This is mainly the result of the exponential growth of those living today with some type of chronic pain, from headaches, to random stomach pain, backaches, fibromyalgia, and various forms of arthritis.

Managing pain has become such a main issue that the U.S. Congress declared the years from 2001 to 2011 “The Decade of Pain Control and Research,” according to the article “Psychological Factors in Chronic Pain: Evolution and Revolution.”

The article, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, discusses a biopsychosocial model of pain, different from the two other more common models, one of purely a biomedical or physiological problem, and the other purely a result of psychological issues.

Instead, authors Dennis C. Turk, PhD, of the University of Washington School of Medicine, and Akiko Okifuji, PhD, of the University of Utah School of Medicine, state that the biopsychosocial model views illness as a dynamic process between biological, psychological, and sociocultural variables. And it’s this process that determines individual responses and coping mechanisms toward pain.

This model is heavily influenced by individual pain perceptions and appraisals. For example, perception denotes how someone identifies the severity or persistence of the pain, and appraisal denotes the meaning attached to the pain. Some individuals with chronic pain will stop working, socializing, or engaging in any pastimes or activities becoming “sick” or assuming the sick role. Others ignore the pain, or learn to cope better with it, and continue with everyday activities.

Additionally, the type of interpersonal interactions with significant others also promotes either a “healthy” role or “sick” role toward the pain and illness.

It is this model that has influenced the development of cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain, many of which are used by health psychologists in treating individuals with chronic pain and illnesses. (For more information on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, see Clinical Psychology Research.

Health psychologists working with chronic pain patients might work in individual or small-group practices, hospitals, or pain rehabilitation centers.

Current happiness: place on rank lists of Happiness in nations 2000-2009*

HappinessAverage HappinessHappy Life YearsInequality of HappinessInequality Adjusted Happiness
Possible Ranges0 – 100 – 1000 – 3.50 – 100
Highest Score8.5 Costa Rica66.7 Costa Rica1.42 Netherlands73 Denmark
United States7.457.91.8563
Lowest Score2.6 Togo12.5 Zimbabwe3.19 Angola16 Tanzania

Treating Mental Health Issues

Additionally, because chronic conditions and diseases often lead to stress, depression, and anxiety health psychologists are trained to treat these and a range of other mental health disorders.

They often run stress management classes, for instance. Or they teach relaxation and deep breathing techniques, or how to implement “balance” into daily lives.

Whether working one on one with clients, for organizations or community-based programs, or at the national policy level, health psychologists work to educate and change behaviors to help all individuals become proactively healthy.

Becoming a Health Psychologist

Many health psychology programs combine clinical psychology training with training in health psychology. Clinical psychologists learn the theories and frameworks for understanding, predicting and alleviating mental health problems and psychological maladjustment. Health psychologists receive training in analyzing and interpreting psychological research. They also learn how to become information disseminators.

Usually a PhD in health psychology is required for most positions in the field. However, some organizations will hire those with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in health psychology to work as assistants, communication experts, and public health coordinators.

Universities, private organizations, health clinics and hospitals, nonprofit groups, and government agencies all hire health psychologists. Community organizations that focus on community health initiatives also hire health psychologists.

Find out how you can become involved, request information from schools offering Psychology degree programs. Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: psychology career licensure.

Our Partner Listings