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A Q&A with Our Health Psychology Coordinator, Dale Larson

Dale Larson - Counseling Psychology

For 40 years, ECP has offered a Health Psychology emphasis within its Counseling Psychology Master’s Program that has attracted the largest number of students since its inception. To provide a deeper look into the emphasis and the health psychology landscape, ECP spoke with Health Psychology Coordinator and Professor Dale Larson.
Dale Larson

For 40 years, the SCU School of Education and Counseling Psychology (ECP) has offered a Health Psychology emphasis within its Counseling Psychology Master’s Program that has attracted the largest number of students since its inception. Today, the program has grown to more than 150 students! 

To understand its popularity and provide a deeper look into the emphasis and the health psychology landscape, ECP spoke with the founder of this first emphasis program in Counseling Psychology, who has continued to serve as its coordinator for most of its 40 years, Professor Dale Larson.

Q: Can you share a bit about the founding of the program?

A: Upon joining the school in 1982, health psychology courses were offered, but needed to be consolidated and refreshed in order to center an emerging Emphasis. I took on the position of Coordinator, and the Health Psychology Emphasis took off and quickly became a key focus in the department. This was only four years after health psychology was named a division in the American Psychological Association, and the emphasis included a course on positive psychology and health, only the second such class to be offered in graduate school training in the United States.  

Q: What kinds of topics does health psychology comprise?

A: Health psychology focuses on how biological, social, and psychological factors influence our health and illness. Students in our emphasis can expect to study health promotion, including stress management, psychoneuroimmunology, healthy eating and exercising, and positive psychology, which encompasses topics like mindfulness and gratitude. Coping with chronic illness is another key focus, which takes a look at social support, coping approaches and positive responses to loss. Anything that relates to psychological dimensions of medicine and healthcare falls into the health psychology domain.

Q: Why is this field such a crucial piece of the healthcare ecosystem?

A: Health psychology is a rapidly growing area in psychology for a few reasons, with a notable one being the need for mental health professionals in the healthcare system who can work with patients and families dealing with chronic illness. Chronic illness is so significant when we consider the health of our nation. Many health professionals don’t have the time to train in mental health skills, so it is important to have interventionists specifically designated and prepared to deliver this care.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about the field?

A: Some think healthy psychology is about aromatherapy, and I’ve even heard the assumption that health psychologists believe we can psychologically cure illness by thinking it away. In reality, all of the field’s concepts and practices are based on the best scientific research we have, and are as well or even better researched than in other areas of psychology. 

Q: Are there any key social justice issues within the health psychology field that faculty and students are discussing in the classroom? 

A: We want our students to be culturally-informed professionals, so in every class we also examine health disparities, cultural issues in regards to health screening and health beliefs, and failures in our healthcare system that can affect attitudes towards health seeking.

Q: Do you need to have previous undergraduate/professional experience in healthcare in order to pursue this emphasis?

A: It is not at all required, but some of our students do have medical backgrounds. We’ve had many nurses come through the program looking to learn more about how to better support the mental health of their patients. The emphasis also attracts students involved in various mind/body careers, like physical therapists and yoga teachers. We’ve even had retired doctors come through the program – physicians who are eager to remain involved in healthcare but in a different capacity. 

Q: What kind of careers can graduates with a health psychology emphasis pursue?

A: The majority of our students take the specialized training into their clinical work as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist or Licensed Professional Counselor, and then specialize in some  health-related issue, such as grief and loss or eating disorders. Graduates can also apply these learnings to a career focused on being a behavioral change specialist within other organizations. Examples include leading stress management programs at companies or holding a role as a mental health professional in doctors’ offices or hospitals. 

Q: What is your vision for the future of this program?

A: The specialization – mental health care for a variety of health-related issues either in medical settings or in clinical practice – will continue to grow. This is because we clearly now see that the psychological components of health and illness, medical treatment, and coping with life's stressors are impactful in our overall mental health. There is a crucial need for more mental health specialists like our students, and they are going to contribute in significant ways to the health of our community and nation.

Keep an eye out for future events as we celebrate 40 years of health psychology at SCU!

About Dale Larson

Dale G. Larson, Ph.D. is a Fulbright Scholar, a Fellow in the American Psychological Association (Division 17, Counseling Psychology, Division 38, Health Psychology, and Division 32, Humanistic Psychology), and a licensed clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist. His academic interests bridge counseling and health psychology, including self-concealment, stress management, person-centered therapy, and a variety of issues in the end-of-life area, such as grief counseling research, interdisciplinary team development, and advanced illness care coordination. A recognized national leader in end-of-life care and training, Larson was Senior Editor and a contributing author for the Robert Wood Johnson-funded national newspaper series, Finding Our Way: Living with Dying in America, which reached 7 million Americans.   

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