Health psychology is a quickly growing field. As an aging population requires more and more health treatments, professionals in health psychology are more and more in demand.
But why is that?
The answer is in the definition of health psychology. It looks at psychological, biological, and social factors and how they affect one’s mental and physical health. It also looks at how social factors influence health. Health psychology also considers how these forces contribute to illness.
This being the case, experts in clinical health psychology are needed to help identify and prevent illnesses, promote healthy living to the public at large, and make changes that improve health care services and delivery.
If working as a health psychologist seems a lot like working in the medical field, you aren’t wrong.
In fact, psychology and medicine have always had a close relationship. Health psychology is the perfect example of this – it highlights the impact of psychological factors on physical well-being.
One of the critical tasks of health psychologists is to help health care providers understand the mind-body connection. Doing so empowers patients to have a more active role in their health care choices so they can be confident in themselves, not just health professionals.
Additionally, health psychologists often advocate on behalf of patients. For example, a health psychologist might suggest that a patient be involved in the process of devising a treatment plan for their health condition with their health care team.
These types of roles are common in all kinds of career settings for health psychologists. Below is a list of some common careers in health psychology that you might consider if you’re interested in this field.
Community Health Advocate
Community health advocacy is public health at the grassroots level. A community-focused health psychologist studies community issues and how they affect residents of the area.
For example, a community health advocate might examine the infection rates for the flu among elderly residents of a specific community. From there, they might design and implement community-level interventions to combat the spread of the disease. This might take the form of creating informational materials about how to protect oneself from the flu and distributing them throughout the community.
This job is one of great importance in disease prevention and intervention. It would be your job to minimize the spread of communicable diseases, which is typically studied at the community level. You may find that collaborating with federal, international and non-profit organizations is routine for a community health advocate.
Of course, many people that work in this field do so in the non-profit sector. For example, you might work with AARP to improve access to health care treatments for the elderly. As another example, you might advocate on behalf of a patient to resolve medical debts or get the most from their insurance coverage. In other words, think of this as a career in which you can generate tangible results for both individuals and communities as it pertains to health care services.
Clinical Health Psychologist
If you choose a career as a clinical health psychologist, you will work with individual clients and groups to improve their well-being through direct interventions.
When you think of a clinical relationship – a therapist and their patient working through various issues together – that’s what a clinical health psychologist does. They strive to understand their clients’ behavior and help their clients modify those behaviors to become healthier.
What’s more, clinical health psychologists seek to help their clients recognize the habits and decisions that lead to poor health. There are many psychological factors that can affect both our physical and mental health. By working to prevent these behaviors from occurring, a clinical health psychologist can assist their client in leading a much healthier life.
But this career isn’t all about working directly with clients. Instead, many health psychologists that work in a clinical setting offer education and training to other professionals. For example, you might develop a training course for other health psychologists on behavior modification techniques that can be used to help a client make healthier choices.
If your desire is to work directly with a client that’s struggling with their health, this would be a great career choice.
Public Health Expert
Public health experts address health issues on the population level. These psychologists study the psychosocial aspects of disease prevention and management. They also formulate interventions when necessary.
Some interventions may focus on demographic groups such as at-risk youth, pregnant women or children whose ages fall into a predefined range. For example, public health experts might develop intervention programs to help teenagers recognize the dangers of using illicit drugs.
As a public health psychologist, you will have many opportunities to work with other health professionals. This includes epidemiologists, geneticists, nutritionists and other health care workers.
Critical Health Psychologist
The field of critical health psychology is an interesting one. This career focuses on challenging how populations think about certain health-related topics. In other words, critical health psychologists are often advocates for change in the health care realm.
For example, as a critical health psychologist, you might champion for improved access to health care services for the urban poor. Historically, this demographic does not have access to the same quality of health care as other populations. Additionally, you might work to change how health care is provided to populations like the urban poor. This could take the form of getting funding for mobile clinics to visit people in their neighborhoods, rather than those same people having to get themselves to a hospital or a clinic.
This is a field of health psychology that is highly influenced by factors like poverty, social class, and other socioeconomic factors. Specifically, these factors influence both the kinds of services that are available to underserved groups as well as how those groups make health-related decisions.
As noted earlier, psychological health impacts the human physical condition. As a wellness expert, you will guide patients toward making life-sustaining choices. You are an advocate for healthy living, but your tasks focus on individuals and small groups.
As a wellness expert, your goal is to promote healthy well-being. You do this by initiating behavioral changes in patients that will ultimately lead to better health.
For example, let’s say you have a client that is suffering from great amounts of work-related stress. That stress is in turn causing the client to suffer from frequent migraines. So, what might you do?
You might work with the client on developing a “relaxation schedule.” Together, you would identify the stressors that trigger the headaches and devise activities to help alleviate that stress. This could be something as simple as taking frequent breaks from work to move around and stretch. It could also involve something more complex, like mindfulness exercises or meditation.
Health psychologists also play a crucial role in disease prevention. This is done in a number of ways. For example, you might counsel clients on basic matters such as hand washing and other hygienic practices. You might also consult with them on diet and nutrition information or provide pregnancy support. Prescreening for diseases, promoting immunizations, and getting adequate nutrition are just some of the tasks of a wellness expert.
Health psychologists address the quality-of-life issues of terminally-ill patients as well. You’ll find that health psychologists assist in adjustment issues for those affected by post-traumatic stress as well as collaborate with other professionals on suicide prevention programs too.
Occupational Health Psychologist
Though occupational health psychology isn’t purely health psychology, the two are often discussed together.
This type of health psychology focuses on the mind-body connection but within the confines of specific jobs.
For example, you might research how stress influences the performance of workers on a manufacturing assembly line. As another example, your focus of study might be on how the emotional toll of working with abused children impacts the well-being of social workers.
In many cases, workers in this field seek to promote improved mental and physical health by using psychological principles. So, you might use group counseling with first responders that were involved in responding to a natural disaster. The counseling setting could provide its participants with a forum to share feelings and emotions about the event. It could also provide comfort in knowing that others shared the same experience.
Additionally, occupational health psychologists are often tasked with making sure that work environments meet government safety standards. This might involve working with the owners of a small, private business to ensure they have implemented required measures to keep their staff members safe while at work.
Health policies are data-driven, making it critical to generate accurate measures of population changes. This includes having data on things like the occurrence of diseases and the impact of interventions.
If you have a good grasp of biostatistics with a background in health psychology, research is your niche. Health psychologists are investigators, studying the effects of positive mental attitude in disease prevention or mitigation. Likewise, it is important to observe the flip side: how well-being or ill health influences a patient’s psychosocial condition.
Health researchers go about learning this kind of information in a couple of ways. First, they analyze data from lab studies. So, a study on the effectiveness of a disease treatment might fall into this category. Second, health researchers often conduct surveys to gain information about a specific topic.
For example, you might generate a survey for adolescents that asks about their experiences with drug use. The information gained from those surveys could help you develop interventions, education programs, and new healthcare policies to address drug use among adolescents.
Obviously, this job isn’t for the faint of heart! It involves a lot of research and writing, examination of data, and presenting findings to other health care professionals.
Educator and Trainer
Health psychologists make good teachers because many of the job tasks have to do with interacting with patients and educating them about their options.
For example, much of a health psychologist’s job is to teach their clients how to change their thinking. You might work with a client that’s trying to stop smoking. In that situation, you would teach them various skills, from refusal skills to coping skills, to improved skills for communicating with loved ones.
You may also be asked to train clients in matters such as encouraging smoking cessation, healthy weight loss programs, and healthy eating. Health psychologists train other health professionals, too.
For example, you might develop a training seminar to teach other professionals how to communicate effectively, especially under stressful conditions. Breaking bad news to families requires special communication skills that should be empathetic, supportive, and informative at all times. This type of supportive communication doesn’t come naturally to all health care workers, so providing training can prove highly beneficial for health care workers and their patients alike.
Of course, health psychologists can also train the next generation of health psychologists. Whether it’s at a junior college, a public university, or a private university, you can pursue a rewarding career as a health psychology professor, assuming you have the requisite educational and work experience. Typically, professors need at least a master’s degree and extensive work experience in order to teach. This means that teaching might be a career choice for later in your career rather than from the outset.
No Matter the Career, It’s an Important Mission
Division 38 of the American Psychological Association is focused solely on health psychology. It emphasizes the importance of investigating the effects of psychological and behavioral issues on patients’ health and well-being.
As a health psychologist, you will have many opportunities to advocate for health issues. Working directly with patients, you can empower them to take charge of their own health by starting with the choice to live a healthier life. Working in public health, you have a real chance of making a significant difference in the overall health of entire communities.
Of course, there are ample opportunities to work in the research field, private business, and for government agencies as well.
Regardless of the work setting or your specific job title, the work you do as a health psychologist is crucially important. The policies you help develop, the interventions you design and the skills you provide to other health care workers could mean the difference between someone living a healthy life or suffering from an illness.
It is a job with tremendous responsibilities. But it is also a job that can be incredibly rewarding!