Why Health Psychology is more important now than ever
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
By Dr Rachel Sumner
The global pandemic has presented many challenges, the likes of which have not been seen in our lifetime. The last global pandemic, whilst providing some vital information on how to steer public health policy, was constrained to a time of arguably less social complexity. It was a time when people travelled less, could communicate less efficiently, and where international news was considerably less fast than the speed of light. The lack of communication may be considered to be a difficult thing – we need to communicate our “stay home, save lives” message to the masses after all. However, today our massively connected planet is not only supportive of helpful, factual, and ultimately life-saving information; it’s also rife with conspiracy, fake news, bots, and troll farms.
Any global health issue will have at its heart the need for psychologists to understand it, and to help manage it from infection control right to longer-term fallout of economic impact, and impact on those working on the frontlines. Health psychologists are uniquely posed to be able to offer consultation, insight, and help to those affected – from patients to professionals.
This is where the health psychologist has a very unique and critical role to play. Behavioural science is at the very heart of understanding how communicable diseases are spread at the individual, group, and population level. From studying individual health behaviour habits, to understanding how people move and interact in social groups, to understanding the social determinants of overall health and how these may be magnified during a pandemic – health psychology has it all covered. There are particular niches here too for those who are interested in understanding how political and social issues impact infection risk and infection control. Understanding how different groups live and socialise can help to target public health advice in a more tailored and bespoke way. Knowing who may be at more of a lifetime risk for ill-health, as well as those more vulnerable to certain types of disease, help to further our understanding of which groups need vital shielding and protection.
Delivering public health messages
On top of all of this, understanding how people respond to public health messages and advice, and how these messages should be delivered is of key importance. How long behaviour change can be sustained for is crucial in mounting an appropriately timed response for significant behaviour change, such as going into lockdown. Health psychologists who also have a good understanding of social-political psychology bring a unique and vital perspective to be able to advise policy makers and policy communicators during such times.
Understanding how and why some may not follow guidance is massively important. Not just in terms of knowing where and how this may happen, but also how this might be prevented or discouraged. Being able to strike the right tone with public health messages has a huge part to play here, but so does the behaviour of leaders in our society: our doctors, nurses, public health advisors, and those in our public offices of all domains.
Dealing with sickness and death
The sheer scale of loss that we have seen in the pandemic has been unlike anything we have witnessed in our time. From the early calls of “it’s just a bad flu” (which are now notably quite quiet) we now have global outcry that more wasn’t done to minimise infection rate and subsequent death. There have been unfounded suggestions of radical treatment or prophylaxis that result in further suffering due to the desperation of those wishing to not get sick. Confusion, or maybe complacency, over symptoms has also been associated with an increasing number of apparently symptomatic individuals to continue their daily lives and not self-isolate. This is a hugely important issue in the case of a virus with a long incubation period before symptoms manifest, and often being asymptomatic, as it is those people who are either asymptomatic (as incubating or in full infection) that are key spreaders of the virus.
Understanding how to help those come to terms with hospitalisation because of Covid-19, both patients and their loved ones, is a critical role for health psychologists. Understanding what it’s like to be a patient, the fear and uncertainty of being admitted to hospital, is a much-needed support to helping our healthcare workers support their patients. Healthcare workers are also under tremendous strain in having to be on the cold face of this raging viral
war; and health psychologists are perhaps well-positioned to support them too due to their understanding of all of these factors. Equally, understanding the agony of having a loved one alone in hospital to fight the disease is hugely important. Knowing that their suffering is not just because they want to show their loved one support, but also for their utter despair at knowing their loved one may be facing death alone. Having conversations about death and dying with patients and family is an unfortunate necessity for healthcare workers, it’s a process that can never be made easier – but understanding the dynamics of interpersonal communication during such a time can help to make those conversations more effective and minimise potential trauma.
Understanding long-term fallout
We don’t just need to consider the here and now. The health of our species is at longer term risk from this pandemic. We need to consider that this – and many other of our public health concerns in recent years – are the result of human disrespect for our natural world. We need to work out how to change that effectively and sensitively to ensure the survival of all of the Earth’s species. The unique and integrated relationship between human health and the health of our planet is at the heart of the research undertaken by HERA Lab; the new research cluster at the University that seeks to promote a bidirectional improvement of human and planetary health.
From the trauma experienced by those witnessing death and dying, to the torment experienced by those with mental health problems exacerbated by lockdown, to the doubtless mental and physical health consequences of economic recession. These are all factors that require a deep and detailed knowledge to navigate. They have implications in policy now and in the future. They have implications in understanding the public health needs of future generations. They are critical in informing organisational and governmental response to such crises in the future.
All of this requires a very detailed and integrated understanding of a variety of areas of psychology to bring together, where health psychologists sit at the centre. There are very few other routes of personal development that would put someone at such a critical point of utility in what has very frequently felt like a hopeless and desperate situation. My own training in health psychology has provided me with an excellent grounding in behaviour change (from my Stage One MSc training), infectious diseases (from my PhD), social determinants of health (from my first postdoc), global public health (from my various aspects of my second postdoc), and now in understanding resilience through my research collaborations. This has all brought me to a place where I wanted to launch a study to understand what’s going to happen to our frontline workers (in healthcare as well as those who have had to brave hoarding and fighting in supermarkets), the CV19Heroes project that is now moving into its second phase. You can keep up with the news from this study here.