Can Public Health Be the New Psychology?

by Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

Can Public Health Be the New Psychology?

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 where 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.

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Author Profile

Dr. Jay Maddock
Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB, assumed the leadership of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University in February 2015. Dean Maddock previously served as the director of the University of Hawaii Public Health Program for 8 years. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity.

Dean Maddock received his undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology, magna cum laude, from Syracuse University and his master’s and doctorate degrees in experimental psychology from the University of Rhode Island.

Dr. Maddock has been named the Bank of Hawai‘i Community Leader of the Year and received the Award of Excellence from the American Public Health Association, Council on Affiliates. He has chaired the state board of health, co-authored the state physical activity and nutrition plan and was a charter member of the NIH study section on Community-Level Health Promotion. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding. He is an author of over 100 scientific articles, and 150 chapters and abstracts. He is president of the American Academy of Health Behavior. His research has been featured in several national media outlets, including The Today Show, Eating Well, Prevention, and Good Housekeeping. Dr. Maddock has given invited lectures in numerous countries, including Australia, Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, El Salvador, and Brazil, and he holds honorary professorships at two universities in China.