Health Psychology Programs

What is Health Psychology?

Health psychology is a sub-specialty of clinical or counseling psychology that focuses on the interaction between behavior, emotions and physical health and illness. The field aims to better understand the social, emotional and psychological aspects of health and medical problems, and help people live healthier lives by addressing their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It also strives to learn more about how physical health is affected by emotional well-being, how to motivate people to live in healthier ways and how to prevent medical problems and illnesses by changing emotions and behaviors.

Some examples of the issues studied, treated and addressed by health psychologists include chronic pain, substance use and abuse, obesity and other eating disorders, smoking cessation, diabetes care, medical compliance, the effects of exercise on depression, stress management, behavioral ways to treat illness or improve medical conditions, sleep disorders and adjustment to chronic illnesses.

Health Psychologist Education

Health psychologists are typically doctoral-level clinical or counseling psychologists who have chosen to specialize in issues related to health, illness and wellness. They have earned Ph.D.s or Psy.D.s in clinical or counseling psychology; some have become board-certified as health psychology specialists beyond the normal state-regulated psychologists’ licensure process, although this extra step is not required to practice health psychology. Health psychologists generally focus their graduate psychology training on health issues by taking particular coursework beyond the general clinical or counseling curriculum, obtaining specialty training and supervision in health-specific areas during externships, internships, or postdoctoral fellowships, or both.

Because health psychologists have all earned the highest degree possible in their field–doctoral degrees–earnings are not highly variable according to training or degree. Instead, earnings differences tend to relate to work setting, with some work settings–such as private practice or corporate consulting, for example–often being more lucrative and others–such as college counseling centers or nonprofit agencies–often paying less. No matter the setting, health psychologists have completed an accredited doctoral graduate training program that typically takes 4 to 6 years beyond college, and have passed state licensing exams.

Health Psychologist Salary

As with most careers, a health psychologist’s salary will depend not only on type of workplace, but on geographic location as well. Practitioners in large urban areas will often earn higher salaries than those in rural or small-town locations. However, in general, U.S. psychologists tend to earn an average of roughly $70,000 per year. Salaries range considerably, with some potentially as low as $40,000 and as high as $100,000 or more. The main determinant of salary for health psychologists is where they choose to work. There are numerous settings in which health psychologists may practice, from college counseling centers, schools and nonprofit mental health clinics to private hospitals, general-practitioner doctors’ offices, veterans’ hospitals and clinics, private practices, universities and even corporations that wish to improve their employees’ health and productivity. These settings will offer differing salaries. However, it’s likely safe to assume that most health psychologists earn salaries somewhere in the $50,000 to $80,000 range.

What Do Health Psychologists Do?

A day in the life of an average health psychologist depends greatly on where he or she has chosen to practice. A health psychologist working in a clinic, hospital or private practice will likely spend most of the day seeing patients, conducting psychotherapy relating to the health issues involved. This could mean helping an obese patient institute a weight-loss plan, trouble-shooting obstacles to quitting smoking with a nicotine-addicted client, helping a client process her grief and fear after a cancer diagnosis, providing emotional support to a patient in chronic pain or even treating insomnia.

Some health psychologists work largely as researchers, studying the behaviors that affect people’s health and well-being. Those professionals’ days would revolve around conducting research studies and analyzing study data. Other health psychologists work as consultants to medical teams. These psychologists might get called in by a group of physicians to help deal with a patient facing a particularly troublesome health situation. The daily duties of a health psychologist are as varied as the settings in which health psychologists can work.

Health Psychologist Resources

APA Division 38 Becoming a Health Psychologist: Guide to health psychology as a career
Health Psychology: Basics about health psychology
Psychology Career Center: More information about a health psychology career