It is widely understood that a person’s health is influenced by behaviors like diet and exercise, but psychologists today recognize that a variety of intersecting influences, oftentimes not obviously linked to fitness, have an impact on our overall physical and mental well-being.
“There’s a growing awareness of the connections between people’s mental health, their health behaviors and their overall health outcomes. How things like systemic issues, poverty, access to resources, access to healthcare all channel into the health behaviors that people are capable of,” said Dr. Paul Perrin, director of the Health Psychology doctoral program at VCU.
Health psychologists like Perrin study how biological, psychological, behavioral, cultural, and social contextual factors influence health and illness. Health Psychology is the newest and one of the fastest growing doctoral programs in the psychology department at VCU. Since its accreditation in 2008, the program has graduated three classes with Ph.D.’s, and has more than tripled the size of it’s core faculty. Perrin says health is the fastest growing area of psychology, and attributes this growth in part to the government and its agencies’ investment in the study of health determinants, as well as to a growing public awareness of behavior’s influence on health.
“I do think a lot of federal agencies are trying to recognize that if they invest and help psychology and prevention, then it can end up having a huge effect on public health and reducing the number of people who end up with chronic diseases,” said Perrin.
In part due to this increased federal interest in studying public health, about a third of the doctoral students in the Health Psychology program at VCU have been able to fund themselves and their research entirely through federal grants. Students have done this by receiving individual fellowships from organizations like the National Institutes of Health. Others funded their research through dissertation fellowships from the National Science Foundation, including two health psychology students, Randl Dent and Ebony Lambert this year.
The health psychology program at VCU provides students with a theoretical background and research skills needed to study the psychological, social, cultural, and behavioral bases of health and illness. The curriculum differs from the majority of health psychology programs in the country because it stresses research over clinical training and is designed to prepare full-time researchers.
“We saw it as a really important niche to produce people who are going to conduct cutting-edge health psychology research and not just have the primary focus in their career be clinical work,” Perrin said.
Health psychology is designed to provide core knowledge in research skills and psychological science, while also giving students the flexibility and free electives to pursue their own research interests. In addition to the Master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation the program requires, students are expected to collaborate with faculty on research projects throughout their training so as to enhance the breadth and sophistication of their research skills, publish research in peer-reviewed journals, and present research at conferences.
The program uses a mentorship model, so prospective student apply to work with a specific faculty member whose research interests align with theirs. Health psychology has ten core faculty members whose research ranges from substance use and HIV prevention, the role of novel and alternative tobacco products in the incidence of tobacco-related disease, to the connections between minority mental health and health disparities. Much of the health psychology research at VCU focuses on studying minority populations, and the program itself is designed to emphasize the importance of cultural diversity.
“We try very hard to focus on diversity in part because of the history of Richmond. This is a place where there’s a very long history of overt racism and we see that channeling into the present day reality. It’s important to us in our doctoral program that we create an environment that is very affirming of diversity and all of its aspects,” said Perrin.
Since its inception, 69% of students in the health program have been women, and 49% have been members of a racial or ethnic minority group. Michael Trujillo is a doctoral student whose research examines how discrimination impacts health outcomes, and he says the cultural diversity of the college and the Richmond area drew him to VCU’s health program.
“Being at VCU in Richmond with a large minority population definitely has helped me feel more comfortable on campus, just to know that there are others I can seek out for support but also to support those communities as well,” Trujillo said.
In 2015 Trujillo was awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation to examine how anti-gay discrimination affects risk-taking in sexual minority men. He is interested in using his degree in health psychology to influence public policy, and earlier this year had the opportunity to educate members of the Virginia General Assembly on health disparities in their communities through his mentorship with Dr. Perrin.
While the program is geared towards research, students of health psychology have ample opportunities through their mentorships with faculty members to conduct direct applied research.
For example, Dr. Faye Belgrave is a core faculty member of the program whose Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention employs graduate and doctoral students to implement drug-use and HIV prevention interventions to local African American youth. In addition to research opportunities through faculty, health psychology students are also supported in their work by their fellow students.
“Since I’ve been here the thing that stands out to me the most is how supportive the students are of each other in their accomplishments but also in helping each other move forward,” said Trujillo. “Graduate school can be a very stressful experience and having students who are supportive rather than competitive can make a world of difference in being successful.”
To learn more, visit psychology.vcu.edu/graduate/health/.
Written by Megan Schiffres