Can Public Health Be the New Psychology?

by Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

In 1991, on a sunny late August day in Syracuse, New York, I stepped into a classroom that ended up changing my life. I was a freshman at Syracuse University and had declared myself to be in the hot major of computer science. Having an Apple II in my house since 1986 and being able to program a bit in BASIC clearly qualified me to be part of the digital revolution. But it wasn’t a computer science course that I was going to that day; it was PSY 205 Foundations of Human Behavior. For this first time I was introduced to concepts like the fundamental attribution error and the door in the face technique. This was for me. I quickly changed my major and by the end of the decade had completed my PhD in Experimental Psychology.

My experience in not unique; every year approximately 88,000 students in the United States graduate with a degree in psychology. In addition, another 132,000 high school students take the AP exam in psychology, and over a million students a year take a college level psychology course. At almost every major university in America, you can take a psychology class, in most cases as part of the social science requirements for graduation. This has led to an American public that is at least somewhat literate in the principles and practices of psychology. Most Americans know who Sigmund Freud was. How many know who John Snow was?

So can public health be the new psychology? It is well documented that people do not know what public health is. Efforts such as “This is Public Health” have attempted to educate the public about what we do, but short messages have problems both in capturing the public’s attention and in providing depth. What we need is a revolution of our education system.

The recent, rapid rise in undergraduate majors in public health across the country is an excellent start, but I would argue that more important is the access to a public health class for every college student in America. Minors and public health classes could indeed have a bigger impact than the majors. It would be transformative to have every engineer, architect, urban planner, chemist, artist, and business major with a public health mindset and background. Thinking about the health of populations in their future jobs wouldn’t just create health in all policies, it would create health in all that we do.

We shouldn’t stop there. Public health classes should be offered in community colleges and in high schools. To create a world, were public health is valued we need penetration like psychology has. A million plus students a year taking a public health class would put us on that pathway. The best part is that it is highly doable. Public health classes are popular everywhere they are offered. It just takes all of us working with our local colleges, universities, and high schools to get these courses on the books and taught. Together we can create a public health revolution.

For further reading, consider these related articles from the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice:

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]