One of the major advantages of pursuing a career in mental health is that there is such a variety of roles to choose from. Mental health professionals can work as counselors, therapists, psychologists, researchers, educators, and more, depending on their education and area of focus.
It is also possible to work with a specific patient population by choosing a specialization such as child and adolescent psychology, forensic psychology, cultural psychology, gender psychology, or political psychology.
Another common area of focus is health psychology, which seeks to leverage psychological frameworks and understanding to improve patients’ health.
Are you interested in potentially pursuing a career in health psychology? Below, we define the specialization and explore some of the typical duties and career paths you might choose.
What is health psychology?
Health psychology is a branch within the psychology field that focuses on how social, psychological, and biological factors combine to influence human health.
“Psychology and medicine often work together,” says Susan Bradley, Assistant Program Coordinator for the Applied Psychology Department in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University. “[Health psychology] examines the psychological underpinnings of illnesses to understand how the mind and body are connected in terms of healing or illness.”
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What do health psychologists and counselors do?
Health psychologists and health counselors are often employed in healthcare settings such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and other healthcare clinics. They leverage a variety of psychological frameworks and expertise to promote wellness in their patients.
“Often, those in the field of psychology will work with doctors in healthcare settings to meet with people who may present with illnesses that are often associated with psychological issues,” Bradley says. “For example, anxiety may come across in people who are having a lot of headaches or stomach issues, and they really would benefit from psychological intervention. And so the doctor will coordinate care with the health psychologist or someone from the health psychology field.”
In addition to the example outlined by Bradley above, other health psychologist’s responsibilities include:
- Conducting clinical interviews and behavioral assessments of patients
- Seeking to understand why certain patients do not follow medical advice and using that understanding to reduce levels of non-adherence
- Guiding patients with serious or terminal conditions through the grief and bereavement process
- Educating patients on making healthful choices, such as around diet and exercise, even in the face of psychological stress (i.e., avoiding stress eating, using exercise to reduce stress)
- Participating in various interventions as necessary, such as around addiction or sedentary lifestyle
Outside of a clinical or healthcare setting, health psychologists who work in research-focused roles can significantly impact healthcare policy, public health, and health education issues.
Careers in Health Psychology
The two primary career paths for those interested in the field are becoming either a health counselor or a health psychologist.
Health counselors, also sometimes known as wellness coaches or health coaches, tend to work directly with patients in either a group or one-on-one setting. The goal is usually to help the patient understand why they might be making unhealthy choices and to arm them with techniques and frameworks to change those behaviors. Health counselors will often work with patients who suffer from eating disorders, a sedentary lifestyle, and various addictions.
In order to become a health counselor, you will typically need to earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as health care, psychology, or nutrition. Many employers will now only consider applicants who have earned at least a master’s degree, such as a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology. It is also possible to complete a number of different certifications related to the field.
According to Salary.com, health and wellness coaches or counselors can expect to earn an average salary of approximately $59,714 per year, though it is possible to earn substantially more—as much as $75,000 or more—depending on where you work and the patient populations you specialize in. Those working in the Boston area typically enjoy higher average salaries of approximately $67,279 per year.
Health psychologists will perform many of the same activities discussed above. The primary difference between health psychologists and health and wellness counselors is that health psychologists will typically have more autonomy in their work and the opportunity to lead research projects o act in an educational setting.
To become a licensed health psychologist, an individual will typically need to complete a doctoral program, such as a PhD in Counseling Psychology.
According to Salary.com, health psychologists earn an average annual salary of just over $80,000. In the Boston area specifically, average salaries fall at just over $90,000. As with health and wellness counselors, this pay can increase significantly depending on your employer, where you work, and your level of experience. The highest-paid health psychologists (typically with the most years of experience) can earn more than $100,000 per year.
Your Path to Becoming a Health Psychologist
If you would like to break into the field of health psychology, earning your master’s degree in counseling psychology can be an excellent first step. Doing so should qualify you for many roles as a health counselor or wellness coach while priming you to take the next step in your career to become a health psychologist if that is your goal.
It is not uncommon for professionals to earn their master’s degree, work in the field as a counselor for a number of years to gain experience, and then return to complete their PhD in Counseling Psychology at a later date. This can allow you to explore a number of different career paths before committing yourself to a particular doctoral program.
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