Health psychology education & degrees
The mind-body connection has been studied and documented time and again. It’s no secret, therefore, that our physical health and mental health have a distinctly symbiotic relationship, where illness—or wellness—in one area can affect the other. This is a defining point of interest for health psychologists who study how behavior affects our physical health and how to prevent, treat and manage illnesses and disabilities, among other topics.
Clinical health psychology has been a psychological specialty recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) since 1997, the second oldest specialty behind clinical neuropsychology. Clinical health psychologists often work alongside other health care professionals to improve health outcomes by providing psychological treatment as a way to help people affected by a physical ailment. Other health psychologists may focus more on research than clinical interventions directly with patients.
In most cases, you need a doctoral degree in psychology if you want to be a licensed psychologist, but there are many other roles in the health care field that could benefit from an educational background in health psychology. Continue reading to find out more about health psychology degrees and what they could do for you and your career.
Why study health psychology?
Psychology degrees in general can be incredibly versatile and lay a foundation for many different types of careers. A health psychology degree, on the other hand, provides that extra emphasis on the relationship between mental and physical wellness, making it an excellent option for people who are interested in applying the principles of psychology to improve health outcomes.
“It is one of the fastest growing niches or areas of psychology right now,” said Dr. Sylvie Shuttleworth, Professor and Chair of the Department of Counseling & Health Psychology at Bastyr University.
“[It] is one of the fastest growing niches or areas of psychology right now.”
“Health psychology really looks at people that have ailments and physical diseases or illnesses and people that have mental health concerns going on. But it really asks, ‘How are these two worlds intersecting?’ Looking at the mind-body connection and not trying to treat these in specific isolations or silos. It’s like, okay, you’re struggling with migraines, but then on this other side you’re also saying that you’re struggling with symptoms of depression. We’re not seeing it as two separate and isolated conditions, but that they may be feeding off each other and exacerbating one other.”
Shuttleworth also said that some people earn a degree in health psychology to get on a pre-med track.
“It isn’t necessarily always lined up with the mental health side specifically, but I would say people are really looking for more of that. They have an interest in integrative and holistic care, so we’ll see them going into work settings or fields that have that interdisciplinary model. That could be at an outpatient clinic, an inpatient psychiatric hospital or a medical hospital, so you can see this playing out in different settings as well.”
Becoming a health psychologist: Prerequisite education and skills
The prerequisites for pursuing a health psychology degree depend on which type of degree you’re applying to.
For psychology bachelor’s degrees, you need a high school diploma or equivalent education and must submit an application that typically includes personal essays, letters of recommendation and test scores from the SAT and/or ACT.
In most bachelor’s degree programs, you don’t declare your major immediately unless you are applying for a direct-admission major. Instead, you must take a certain number of general education courses in subjects such as math and English before you can apply to the major of your choice. For health psychology degrees, that also usually means taking one or two introductory psychology classes (and earning a certain grade in those classes) before you can apply to the health psychology major.
For graduate degree programs, you typically need a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a similar major to be admitted to the program. Many doctoral programs also require that you have a master’s degree. In addition, applications to graduate programs often include a personal essay, letters of recommendation, a resume/CV and possibly test scores from the GRE. Psychology programs may also require a minimum score on the GRE’s psychology subject test.
No matter what degree program you’re applying for, it’s important to bear in mind some of the more innate skills that can be essential to your success as a health psychology student:
- Strong written and verbal communication skills
- Empathy and interpersonal relationship skills
- Aptitude and interest in research
- Integrity and confidentiality when necessary
Certifications and continuing education
One of the best ways you can show your commitment to the field as a health psychologist is to get board-certified in health psychology through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). The ABPP certifies psychologists in 13 specialty areas. The certification process consists of three phases:
Psychologist submits an application to demonstrate their eligibility for candidacy (requires completion of a doctorate, internship, postdoctoral fellowship and possession of an active psychologist license)
Once eligibility is established, the psychologist submits a practice sample
Once the practice sample is reviewed and approved by the Board, the psychologist must take and pass an oral examination
Although the process of obtaining board certification is extensive, having a specialty certification can improve your credibility as a practitioner and possibly lead to greater job prospects and a higher salary.
As with many other licensed professions, continuing education (CE) is an important part of a health psychologist’s career. Participating in CE opportunities helps you remain knowledgeable about the latest science, technologies and methods within your profession. In fact, psychologists are usually required to submit proof of completing a certain amount of CE each time they renew their license with their state or jurisdiction’s licensing body. Licensing bodies usually have a list of approved CE providers where practitioners can search for verified CE opportunities to fulfill their requirements. These often include things like professional workshops, seminars, online courses or teaching in academia.
Career opportunities with a degree in health psychology
Depending on how far you take your education, a health psychology degree can prepare students for a wide breadth of careers in fields such as social and human services, health care, public health, business, academia and more.
“There is such a variety of settings you can go into, and you’re probably using the same basic skills and knowledge like counseling and psychoeducation. But if you’re going into psychology, maybe you are doing that one-on-one patient work but maybe you’re the one that’s doing trainings for the nursing staff, or you’re the one talking about work-life balance or vicarious trauma or burnout. There are a lot of potential options with different work settings, be it community clinics, hospitals, alcohol and other drugs services, hospice work or terminal illnesses,” Shuttleworth said.
“Working with patients that have terminal illnesses and diagnoses is another one that really draws people that have an emphasis in health psychology, because you’re looking at the psychological side of all the end-of-life questions coming up—meaning and reflection on life—but then you also have this huge biological component when someone’s battling with a terminal diagnosis.”
Consider some of the following roles and their qualifications to see if a health psychology degree is right for you.
Challenges and rewards in health psychology
Health psychology is a vast field with many different areas of interest and research opportunities. Health psychology professionals have the chance to work with diverse populations and various health conditions, but no matter what you choose to do, working with people who are ill can be incredibly challenging at times.
“I think one of the big challenges that many people in this field or in the arena of health psychology face is that compassion fatigue,” Shuttleworth said. “Being there so much for people, going through their pain, their suffering, but then yourself taking on that weight and having such a deep level of empathy to the point where you’re feeling this as well.”
Like two sides of the same coin, Shuttleworth said that this also why the job is so gratifying.
“What a gift to have this as my career and job. It’s one of the most rewarding and meaningful things. I feel like I have such a deep purpose in life to sit with someone in their hardest moments and have them tell you things they’ve never told anyone else and trust you, and then feeling better, having that catharsis and letting go. I’m so privileged every day, it’s such an honor that people let you into their lives in that way.”
Future trends in health psychology
As a scientific discipline, the field of health psychology is continually evolving. The COVID-19 pandemic alone has transformed the healthcare industry in many ways, including the proliferation of telehealth and virtual care services. This has not only changed the way health psychologists do their jobs, but it has become a research topic for many health psychologists as well.
“I can tell you just for myself as a mental health professional that it was a bit taboo that you would just do virtual work and not have seen someone in person, where now we can reach so many more people, especially if you’re in more rural areas or don’t have the same accessibility,” Shuttleworth said. “I think there’s a lot of beauty to that in terms of equity of care.”
Cultural factors are also being studied more closely in healthcare disciplines, including health psychology. Shuttleworth said that it’s important to have a greater cultural awareness so that practitioners can make sure they are tailoring their treatment to each individual’s circumstances.
Shuttleworth herself is currently studying a topic that has emerged on the mental health care scene in the last several years.
“A cutting-edge project I’m working on right now that ties into health psychology is the incorporation of psychedelic-assisted therapies. That’s something that’s very new. I even noticed the other day that Netflix has a new series on it, and you’re seeing it more and more in peer-reviewed journals and the academic world. When I first started 25 years ago, that was very taboo. No one would talk about it because your whole reputation could be tarnished,” Shuttleworth said. “Now there are FDA studies being approved to look at these different benefits and we’re hearing some really promising results. I think there’s just so much that’s going to come out of that.”
Selecting the right health psychology program
Choosing to enroll in a degree program of any kind can be overwhelming. The type of program you are pursuing—undergraduate, graduate and beyond—can also change how you approach your search. No matter what kind of health psychology degree you’re going for, here are a few starting points to kick off your search for a program that’s right for you:
- This is probably the first thing you’ll want to look at when searching for health psychology programs. You must determine how far you are willing to commute to a school or whether you are willing to relocate for a given program to know what your geographical limitations are when selecting a program. Online programs may be a good option for people who don’t have any health psychology programs near them.
- Any program you enroll in should be accredited by some accrediting body. Accreditation means that the program has been reviewed for certain quality standards set forth by the accrediting body. Accreditation is also important because it’s required to receive any federal funding. For doctoral degrees, doctoral internships and postdoc positions, they should be accredited by the APA.
- Curriculum and research opportunities:
- Check out the program curriculum to get a feel for the classes they offer and the projects you may have to complete. Explore what research opportunities and/or internships are included in the program, especially for graduate-level degrees. Ask yourself whether these opportunities not only interest you but could help you progress in your career.
- Faculty and program reputation:
- It’s worthwhile to take some time to research the reputation of the schools and programs you’re interested in. This may include finding out their graduation rate, reading up on the faculty and their qualifications or even speaking with alumni to find out if they would recommend the program to others.
- Getting a degree is expensive, but there are lots of resources available to help offset the cost. After you determine your overall budget for school, you can begin to calculate a program’s total cost by researching federal aid, scholarships and other opportunities that can help reduce the price tag. Graduate programs in particular often have assistantships available, paid teaching positions for graduate students that also reduce the cost of their program.
If the principles of health psychology excite and inspire you, now could be an excellent time to jumpstart a career in this growing field. As a health psychologist or similar professional, you could be a part of bridging the health care gap between mental and physical health care treatment. With degrees available at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, the possibilities are practically limitless.
Published: November 14, 2023