Health Psychologist: Education and Career Information
Many people don’t realize that healthcare isn’t just about focusing on physical illnesses. While it’s true that tending to broken bones or internal illnesses is a large part of what medical professionals do, there is an entirely separate factor that plays a big role in someone’s well-being: their mental and emotional states.
These are the area that health psychologists work hard to shed light on each day. If you’re very interested in learning more about how someone’s mental well-being affects their physical health, or if you’re eager to learn more about how physical illnesses can cause emotional turmoil (or vice versa), becoming a health psychologist is absolutely something you would want to consider.
What Does a Health Psychologist Do?
Generally speaking, a health psychologist is a medical professional who thinks about the causes of physical illness in psychological terms. This means that in addition to looking at the more “traditional” causes of a particular condition, they also deeply consider what (if any) mental, emotional, social or even behavioral factors may be in play.
To put it another way, there may be a situation where some type of significant mental stress actually contributes to a physical illness. Obviously, finding out more about the relationship between the two would put the health psychologist and other medical professionals in a much better position to treat the cause and not simply mask the symptoms.
Health psychologists are also commonly very interested in exploring how psychological and physical issues related to and interact with one another in a variety of different contexts.
Throughout the course of their daily jobs, a health psychologist will be expected to participate in a wide range of different activities. They may work one-on-one with patients or in a group setting, depending on the particular nature of the condition that they are studying. They will often conduct everything from personality tests to surveys to interviews and may even be present at interventions.
They work closely with patients on techniques like relaxation therapy and stress relief, all with the same ultimate goal in mind: improving the way that a person psychologically copes with their condition and increasing social support to give that person the best possible chance of recovery moving forward.
How Much Can a Health Psychologist Expect to Earn?
According to information obtained by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for health psychologists is roughly $69,280 per year. However, the actual amount of money that you can expect to make once professionally employed can vary wildly depending on a number of different factors. Many health psychologists find work in a community setting, for example, which would put them in environments like non-profit mental health clinics. In that case, you should expect to make below the national average – the BLS has the low end of the wage scale at about $35,000 per year. Health psychologists that work for private practices, however, can earn as much as $100,000 per year or more. It all depends largely on where you choose to focus your career and what types of opportunities you choose to pursue.
It’s also important to note that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for health psychologists (and demand in the larger psychology field in general) is expected to grow at an impressive rate of about 11% per year for the next five years. This is thanks in large part to both an increased focus on health and fitness in the United States, along with a growing emphasis on preventative health rather than the reactionary medical services of the previous generation. So regardless of which type of health psychologist you choose to become, actually finding employment should not necessarily be difficult.
What Are the Skills Required to Be a Successful Health Psychologist?
There are a number of essential skills that you will need in order to become a successful health psychologist. Chief among them is a high degree of empathy. Remember that you’ll be dealing in an intimate environment with people who are coping with stressful and other emotionally stressful situations. You need to be able to not only understand the root cause of the condition they face, but what you can do to ease their emotional and physical pain and treat the underlying problem at the same time.
Communication is also a mission-critical skill for anyone who wants to become a health psychologist. You need to be able to clearly and concisely communicate with both patients and other medical professionals, effectively describing what you’re seeing and portraying your findings in the best way possible so that everyone involved can take the right step for the right situation at the right time.
You will also need to be a very efficient researcher, as you will often be placed in positions where you need to conduct your own experiments to find out what to do next given the situation in front of you. At any given time, you’ll be wading through decades of research in the field and you’ll need to know how to take those findings and apply them to the unique patient you’re working with today.
Education and Internship Requirements to Become a Health Psychologist
As is to be expected from such a precise medical field, the educational path that you must follow in order to become a health psychologist is a very specific one. You will need to complete your undergraduate degree in psychology or in a related field like social work. If you attend a college or university full time, you can expect this to be completed in about four years.
Next, you’ll move onto a graduate program to narrow the focus of your education to health psychology in particular. You will have some options here – you may choose to go down a clinical or research-focused track. It is during this time that you will learn about more advanced topics like abnormal behavior, therapeutic techniques and others. Though the actual length of the program will vary depending on the institution you go with, you can typically expect this to take between three to five years to complete.
You will then move onto a doctorate program in health psychology, which will likely last another five years. During this time, you will participate in a one-year-long supervised internship in health psychology. This will put you in a real-world environment, much like the kind you’ll eventually find yourself employed in. You’ll get hands on experience working with patients on a daily basis, taking your studies to a new level.
Note that depending on the types of positions that you apply to, further education may be required. Some hospitals and other medical institutions require health psychologists to have advanced training in behavioral health and medicine and in other related post-doctoral topics. So, while continuing your education beyond your doctorate program isn’t necessarily mandatory, doing so will vastly increase the variety of positions that you will be qualified for.
Finally, once your education has been completed, you will move onto getting your certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology. Though it’s true that not every job will require you to be certified, many will – and again, taking this step now will significantly improve the number of employment options that you have available to you in the future. Also keep in mind that in many states licensing is mandatory for health psychologists, so you may not have a choice depending on where you wind up.
If you’ve got an unending passion for helping others and are endlessly fascinated about what really makes someone tick, becoming a health psychologist may very well be the right move for you. In terms of healthcare, it’s arguably one of the most important professions there is. Not only do you get to help treat someone’s physical illness, but you also have the potential to provide them with the type of emotional and mental relief that will last a lifetime.