What IS Health Psychology?

The golden question! Friend, family member, stranger or academic in another department – when you tell someone you study Health Psychology, you’ll often be met with:

  • *blank stare*
  • “What’s that then?”
  • “Wait, are you reading my mind?”
  • “I better be careful what I say now…”
  • “Do you help people with Schizophrenia?”

Most of those are pretty well worn responses so they are easy to handle. And I completely understand people’s confusion. Truth be told, even I find it hard to tell people what Health Psychology is, and I’m studying it! After the initial “yes, actually I can read your mind, and you should not be thinking that…” I usually explain the discipline along the lines of “looking at behaviour and how psychology can affect physical health”. But that isn’t really cutting it anymore. So, here is a brief overview of Health Psychology.

The general consensus is that Health Psychology is the study of factors which influence health, illness and healthcare provision. Specifically, this branch of psychology takes a biopsychosocial approach – which is pretty much what it says on the tin. In this view, health and illness are considered to be a result of biological, psychological and social factors. When it comes to biological, we’re talking genetics and inherited personality traits and psychological includes factors like lifestyle, personality, stress and coping. Social factors on the other hand include social support, relationships, cultural beliefs and social norms.

Let’s take an example we are probably all familiar with – stress! Biologically, we may have inherited a personality type that makes us particularly prone to the impact of stressors. Psychologically however, we might demonstrate resilience and positive coping styles such as problem-solving. We might also appraise – that is perceive – stress in positive ways, for example as a challenge rather than an impossible situation. Finally, socially we might have a supportive network of friends who we can talk to and share our burdens with or we might live in a culture that believes in 6 hour working days – that’s likely to buffer those stress levels!

So all of these factors are important, they work together and all individuals will have a unique combination of influences that lead to their health outcomes. As a society however, we need to be careful, it is incredibly easy to treat health conditions in isolation, focusing on one factor instead of taking a more holistic well rounded approach. The health professional might provide therapeutic intervention and nicotine replacement products to a smoker and wonder why they keep falling off the wagon. A health psychologist however, might recognise that it’s the social norm to go to the pub three times a week and the lure of a cigarette with friends is just too hard to resist. By not considering these factors huge amounts of resources can be wasted and the well intended efforts of healthcare professionals can be completely undermined. This is where Health Psychologists come in!

Where can you find a health psychologist?

The answer is everywhere! But you might not know who they are as many work under a different title. However, you can find health psychologists in clinics and hospitals working directly with patients, government and policy organisations creating health promotion campaigns and universities and medical schools, conducting important research and teaching the next generation.

Compared to other areas of psychology, Health Psychology is considered to be a relatively new kid on the block. Although psychological factors have been studied in relation to health since the early 20th century this has typically been in the context of medicine, rather than psychology. In 1969, a psychologist called William Schofield wrote a report for the American Psychological Association (APA) which called for training and education surrounding the role of psychology in the provision of health services. In 1973 the APA took this on board and began planning the division of Health Psychology which was formally added to the APA in 1977. It wasn’t until 1986 that Health Psychology ‘officially’ reached Great Britain, with the British Psychological Society (BPS) establishing the Division of Health Psychology. The divisional status meant that the training needs and professional development of health psychologists were recognised and chartered status was attainable.

But what do Health Psychologists DO I hear you ask.

The Division of Health Psychology has six main objectives:

To understand behavioural and contextual factors
By conducting research that identifies behaviours which impact health, contribute to illness and impact the efficacy of health care, health conditions can be managed. Futhermore, contextual factors such as economic status, cultural norms and community standards also influence health and identifying those with the most impact can enable health behaviour change.

Preventing illness
Though the management of health conditions is important, the prevention of them is too. Health Psychologists develop and run programmes on an individual and social level. Education and effective communication is vital in attempts to prevent illness.

Understanding the effects of disease
By exploring how illness and disease can affect the psychological well being of an individual, quality of life can be explored. This is particularly important for individuals with chronic or terminal illness. The effects of disease are not only limited to the person who is unwell, and health psychology also seeks to provide services for the bereaved or those caring for others.

Critical analysis of health policy
With a broad spectrum of skills and understanding Health Psychologists are in an excellent position to explore how health policy can address inequalities, inequities and social injustice.

Conducting research
Most often you’ll find a Health Psychologist working in a research capacity. The division of health psychology is extremely applied and the research that goes on behind the scenes allows the work that practicing health psychologists do to remain evidence based and relevant.

Teaching and communication
Alongside teaching within universities and medical schools, Health Psychologists also teach health professionals on how to deliver interventions, communicate effectively and work resourcefully.

Here in the UK given the current political climate, changes to the NHS and the health of the population, Health Psychologists are needed more than ever.Individuals are feeling more empowered and are seeking information for themselves, therefore this field of psychology has an important role to play in conducting effective research and disseminating research, through education or practice. The nature of Health Psychology, with it’s biopsychosocial approach, means that it has a unique contribution to make in terms of managing health, preventing illness and improving healthcare experiences. Those of us in the field have quite a task on our hands!

Having written this post I feel much clearer and confident answering that dreaded question and I hope that it’s helped clarify things for you too. I’m proud to be part of this discipline and to be conducting research with impact. And I think overall, I have learnt that perhaps the question isn’t ‘what do Health Psychologists do’, but ‘what do they not do’?

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Til next time.

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