How Psychology Benefits Public Health

public health psychology

The field of psychology is becoming increasingly integrated with public health and it is easy to understand why. Many of the most common public health issues—such as obesity, food safety, sexually transmitted infections, and motor vehicle accidents—are closely linked with behavior. Over the past few years, more psychologists are earning their masters in public health online, taking courses in public health while they earn their doctoral degree, or opting for an online MPH to make a swift entry into the field. This is important as psychologists offer new perspectives and expertise on how healthy behaviors can be encouraged.

Let us consider the four public health issues mentioned above and see how applying certain psychological strategies may help people on a larger scale.

1. Obesity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the prevalence of obesity among American adults is approximately 42%. Obesity is linked with a range of other heath issues such as stroke, heart disease, type two diabetes, and cancer. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the US is more than $147 billion. On average, the medical

cost for individuals with obesity is $1,429 higher than people who have a healthy weight.

How can psychology to tackle the obesity issue? Although obesity is a physical health condition, it is often associated with underlying mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Many people with depression eat food to feel better. However, overeating often leads to obesity, which may worsen depression and lead to even more overeating. Rather than tacking the obesity issue directly, some psychologists may reason that early detection, diagnosis and treatment of the underlying mental health issues may be effective in reducing the obesity epidemic.

2. Food Safety

Existing and emerging risks associated with food have been identified by many companies and countries worldwide. Governments and companies in the food industry are also chiefly responsible for communicating food risks and other food safety matters to the general public. However, a series of food crises in the 1990s and 2000s (for example, swine flu) have greatly increased public concern about food safety. These crises have also contributed to a loss of confidence in organizations that regulate these issues.

To help keep the general public safe, governments and health organizations use a number of psychological techniques when informing the public about food risks. These techniques may involve using famous and well-respected celebrities to deliver a general message on TV, or using animated characters when educating children on food safety. Health organizations make good use of statistics, and fill their communications with impactful figures such as the death rate or the prevalence of a particular disease. They also take advantage of the  persuasive power of authority and social proof, and often share health messages from respected experts that have been liked and retweeted by thousands of people.

3. Sexually Transmitted Infections

Sexually transmitted infections are a global problem. They may cause physical pain and discomfort, shame, relationship issues, and even death.  Despite the seriousness of STIs, many individuals engage in unprotected sex and avoid getting regular tests. Ultimately, this leads to more people becoming infected.

People may choose not to get regular tests for a sexually transmitted disease because of the stigma associated with STIs. Even if an individual tests negative for STIs, he may be hesitant about sharing that information with others out of fear that he may be viewed as promiscuous. Some psychologists believe that increasing public awareness of STIs can do much to reduce the current social stigma. Educating children about sex from a young age can help them to be more comfortable discussing sexual issues and adopt healthy sexual behaviors when they get older.