A Chronic Disease Researcher’s Takeaways from “Health Psychology in the Time of COVID”

TheHealthPsychologist Research Highlight


Ali A. Weinstein, PhD
Director, Center for the Study of Chronic Illness and Disability
Associate Professor, Department of Global and Community Health System
Senior Scholar, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being
College of Health and Human Services
George Mason University

The recent editorial that appeared in Health Psychology, “Health Psychology in the Time of COVID-19”(Freedland et al., 2020), was thought-provoking for many reasons. I am currently serving as the Chair of the Health Research Council for our Society (SfHP) and the editorial highlighted important aspects of health psychology research that I believe bear repeating and amplifying. My reaction to the editorial is also reflective of my current position and range of activities. In addition to my role with SfHP, I am an Associate Professor at George Mason University (Mason), with about half of my time spent in research and half of my time spent teaching. My academic home at Mason is in the Department of Global and Community Health, the center of public health at my university. I have taught many public health classes, including our Introduction to Public Health. In that class, I discuss the “Epidemiological Transition”, i.e., describing the pattern of the leading causes of death transitioning from infectious to chronic diseases. In my own work, I have almost exclusively focused on the chronic side of the communicable/non-communicable disease divide. In the field of health psychology, we have embraced the logical behavioral connection with chronic conditions (as highlighted in the editorial). This focus is common among health psychologists; while a few health psychologists focus on infectious disease, the large majority work in the noncommunicable disease space.

In contrast, our public health colleagues have remained more active and involved in infectious disease research. Many of my public health colleagues are specialists in emerging and infectious disease. As the pandemic hit, these colleagues were shifting their research work towards focusing on COVID-19, conducting media interviews and participating in special topic webinars on campus. In the moment, it didn’t occur to me that I would have something important to add to those projects, interviews, and presentations. “I am a chronic disease researcher, this is not my area” was a consistent thought that I had. I was spending my time worrying about how I was going to adapt my research in light of the pandemic, not thinking about how my expertise could be applied to areas of importance within the pandemic.

The editorial was eye-opening for me. Of course, there are overlaps between infectious and chronic disease (e.g., health behaviors). Therefore, as a health psychologist, I have important expertise and experiences that can aid in both studying and (hopefully) reducing the risk and impact of COVID-19. The main mitigation strategies for COVID-19 are all behavioral: wear masks, social distance, wash your hands, and get vaccinated when you can. Because I initially missed the potential impact that I could make into these important conversations, my colleagues, media outlets, and governmental entities missed them as well.  I agree with the Editorial that we need some health psychologists to focus their research expertise on infectious disease, encompassing both the promotion of behavioral strategies for mitigation (e.g., mask-wearing) as well as those for prevention (e.g., vaccination). But, it is also important for all health psychologists to see the interconnection between their current work and aspects of COVID-19.

Our health psychology colleagues across the ocean in the UK have done a nice job of creating a visible network for accessing health psychology expertise, called the Health Psychology Exchange (Arden et al., 2020), which is a consortium of volunteers in health psychology that support UK efforts in the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a lovely initiative that has raised the profile of health psychology in the UK and produced useful products, including rapid reviews to add to the evidence base and help to inform decisions by policy-makers (Ghio et al., 2020; Rodham et al., 2020; Thorneloe et al., 2020). The US is a bigger and more diverse environment than the UK, but there is still something to be said for organizing as a group of health psychologists to impact policy. Another plug for the importance of our Society!

So, as a health psychology researcher, what are my takeaways from the important Editorial? They include: (1) health psychologists have essential expertise on the main mitigation and prevention strategies for COVID-19; (2) we must increase the visibility of health psychologists as experts with specialized knowledge in these areas; and (3) in the future, we must encourage and support health psychologists to engage in a meaningful way with infectious diseases. The impact of COVID-19 will likely be with us for many years. Many infectious diseases have long-term health consequences, even after they have been “cured,” with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) being a prime example (e.g., Hui et al., 2005). The continued involvement of health psychologists on the potential long-term sequelae of COVID-19 will be an important area of future investigation for all health psychologists, those that focus on infectious and/or chronic diseases.


Arden, M. A., Byrne‐Davis, L., Chater, A., Hart, J., McBride, E., & Chilcot, J. (2020). The vital role of health psychology in the response to COVID-19. British Journal of Health Psychology, 25(4), 831–838. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12484

Freedland, K. E., Dew, M. A., Sarwer, D. B., Burg, M. M., Hart, T. A., Ewing, S. W. F., Fang, C. Y., Blozis, S. A., Puterman, E., Marquez, B., & Kaufmann, P. G. (2020). Health psychology in the time of COVID-19. Health Psychology: Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 39(12), 1021–1025. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0001049

Ghio, D., Lawes-Wickwar, S., Tang, M. Y., Epton, T., Howlett, N., Jenkinson, E., Stanescu, S., Westbrook, J., Kassianos, A., Watson, D., Sutherland, L., Stanulewicz, N., Guest, E., Scanlan, D., Carr, N., Chater, A., Hotham, S., Thorneloe, R., Armitage, C., … Keyworth, C. (2020). What influences people’s responses to public health messages for managing risks and preventing infectious diseases? A rapid systematic review of the evidence and recommendations. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/nz7tr

Hui, D. S., Joynt, G. M., Wong, K. T., Gomersall, C. D., Li, T. S., Antonio, G., Ko, F. W., Chan, M. C., Chan, D. P., Tong, M. W., Rainer, T. H., Ahuja, A. T., Cockram, C. S., & Sung, J. J. Y. (2005). Impact of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) on pulmonary function, functional capacity and quality of life in a cohort of survivors. Thorax, 60(5), 401–409. https://doi.org/10.1136/thx.2004.030205

Rodham, K., Bains, K., Westbrook, J., Stanulewicz, N., Byrne-Davis, L., Hart, J., & Chater, A. (2020). Rapid review: Reflective Practice in crisis situations. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/e8tqn

Thorneloe, R., Fynn, W., Daly, M., Stanulewicz, N., Kassinos, A., Shorter, G. W., Moll, S.-J., Campbell, M., Sodergen, S., Chapman, S., Sutherland, L., Armitage, C., Arden, M., Charter, A., Byrne-Davis, L., Hart, J., & Epton, T. (2020). Scoping review of mobile phone app uptake and engagement to inform digital contract tracing tools for COVID-19. PsyArXiv PrePrints. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/qe9b6