What is Integrative Psychology?
Psychology is a vast field with many subdisciplines: forensic psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and even the psychology of performance.
Also, among these areas, you will find integrative psychology. We asked Dr. Brenda Shook, associate professor and director of the bachelor of arts in psychology programs at National University, “Just what is integrative psychology?”
“A good way to explain it is to contrast it with traditional psychology, which is the study of an individual from a scientific perspective,” Shook says. “While that is incredibly valuable, it can’t be evaluated empirically.”
Shook, who also teaches traditional psychology, explains that the empirical research — via observational studies — does something science cannot: It considers the relationship between people and their environment, and how culture helps shape who they are and how they feel.
The Integrative Psychology Difference
After hearing Shook’s explanation, it becomes clear that this branch of psychology is aptly named: it integrates other views and practices. That’s also how the Association for Integrative Psychology would answer: “What is integrative psychology?” The organization defines it as “a branch of study and practice that seeks to unite traditional medicine, psychology, and other alternative and complementary approaches.”
“Traditional psychology is really a western philosophy,” says Shook, referring to Eastern practices that consider humans from a holistic view. She says integrative psychology focuses on people’s relationships with the physical world.
“We view humans as part of a larger system,” she says, comparing it with traditional psychology again. “It’s the study of the individual vs. the study of the individual as they fit into environments — a family, a state, a culture, the world.”
For this reason, Shook says the Bachelor of Arts in Integrative Psychology at National University has a strong multicultural element. She shares an example of how a topic could be examined differently, branch by branch.
“In all traditional programs, students take abnormal behavior. Using the scientific method, they learn about abnormal behavior defined by a Western perspective,” she explains. However, when you look at the topic more broadly, you can see how culture can influence mental health. Shook adds that the western classification system used in the United States might define things, like distress, differently than in other countries.
“It’s not ‘the western’ view that is the ‘correct’ view,’” she says of how integrative psychology is taught.
What Will I Learn in an Integrative Psychology Online Degree Program?
Because it falls under the realm of general psychology, integrative psychology students will still take some of the same introductory courses those in other branches would. But, beyond that, the course listings might look a little different. Instead of more concrete material covered in classes like “counseling techniques,” “psychological testing,” and “cognitive psychology,” integrative psychology covers the more abstract.
“We don’t have a lot of exams — some, but not a lot. We do a lot of writing and have a lot of discussions,” says Shook of what integrative psychology students might experience in her classroom.
In National’s program, integrative psychology students will take courses like:
- History and Philosophy of Psychology.
- Personal Growth and Development.
- Multicultural Mental Health.
- Spirituality and Global Health.
- Intimate Relationships.
National University’s Bachelor of Arts in Integrative Psychology offers a variety of electives, both within psychology and other disciplines. This allows someone to explore in more depth areas that interest them the most. These include:
- Global Psychology.
- Psychology of Bereavement.
- Symbolic Expression.
- World Religions.
- World Music.
- Gender and Global Psychology.
- Interactive Storytelling.
Course titles are one thing, but if we take a closer look into these classes we’ll begin to see the differences between traditional and integrative psychology Shook described.
Topics in Integrative Psychology
Exploring “What is integrative psychology?” means taking a deeper look into what issues are covered — and how and why they’re covered. Shook gave us a peek into some of her courses and what they address.
Shook says many psychology students take a course called “Human Sexuality.” This class would likely begin with a section on human anatomy and then branch into abnormal sexual behaviors. Shook says the integrative psychology equivalent would be “Intimate Relationships.”
“We recognize that romantic and sexual relationships are very important. But they are not the only close relationships people form, nor are they always the most important ones,” she explains, giving examples of relationships with parents or siblings or deep friendships as examples. “Our relationships are part of what makes us human.”
The course description says students will explore the costs and benefits of various kinds of intimate relationships and cover areas such as power dynamics, intimate violence, and relationship dissolution.
“Psychology has traditionally shied away from spirituality and religion,” Shook explains. “For one, you can’t study it empirically.”
However, this topic might have more relevance than most people think. “Spirituality — the spiritual experience — is important to the majority of human existence,” she says.
Spirituality can also be linked to global health, and that’s why you’ll find a course called “Spirituality and Global Health” at National University. According to the official class description, students analyze “the philosophical and experiential dimensions of Buddhism, mystical Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Vedic, Yogan, and pagan and indigenous wisdom traditions” — and how all of this can relate to individual and global wellbeing.
Ecopsychology — or how humans relate to and interact with their natural environment — is another of Shook’s interests. An ecopsychology course would explore physical areas like green spaces, wilderness, and gardens and ask, as Shook says, “How do they affect our health and wellbeing?”
“We also look at humans’ relationships with other natural beings,” she says, suggesting pets as something they’d likely explore. “A lot of people are close to their dogs.”
National’s course description says ecopsychology examines the “synthesis of psychology and ecology” and looks at how historical and sociocultural factors influence how we view the natural world. The class also looks at the health consequences of “the objectification of nature.”
Ecopsychology is more than looking to the forest for therapy. The American Psychological Association has over the years reported how studying the way humans interact with nature — and how green is good for us — has informed how we build homes, design workspaces, and plan cities.
Our cultural experiences can impact our mental health in many ways. For example, societal norms can affect how we feel about ourselves or how we cope with issues. How we perceive global events or how we think about belief systems other than our own can also contribute to our mental health, such as causing distress, anger, or sadness.
“The world seems to be getting more and more violent and intolerant of human differences,” she explained. “People are exposed to these things with no context, and that creates anxiety. That anxiety and ignorance can fuel fear.”
In an integrative psychology class, students might discover, as Shook says, “Humans are more similar than they are different.”
Shook’s “Multicultural Mental Health” class looks at the ways mental disorders are classified around the world and how culture can influence how we perceive mental health or abnormal function. This class also explores how one’s culture could affect their mental health — and how someone might express their mental health problems.
With concepts like this, you might wonder what happens in an actual class period or what kind of assignments you’d get. Shooks says an online degree format doesn’t mean there’s any less discussion; her courses naturally lend to conversations.
“It touches them personally, and they immediately get how important these issues are. I’ve been really amazed and impressed with how involved the students are,” she says.
Why Study Integrative Psychology? What Can I do?
Studying integrative psychology is good preparation for a variety of careers, from counseling to social work. In fact, Shook says the degree would appeal to anyone interested in a profession that involves the health and wellbeing of people.
“This program is very unique,” she says. “You don’t see it in undergraduate programs in the United States often.”
Earning a BA in integrative psychology can open you up to a variety of career options, in fields or places like:
- Human or social services.
- Marketing or advertising.
- Corrections or law enforcement.
- Human resources.
- Nonprofit organizations.
- Career/employment counseling.
- Parks and recreation.
Many positions in these fields are in high demand. The need for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is expected to rise by 23% through 2026, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The pay range for this occupation can vary based on where you work. The national average annual wage is $44,630; in hospitals, it’s $48,310; and in government agencies, it’s $51,690.
Using the BA in Integrative Psychology as a Stepping Stone
If your end goal is to work in counseling or education, this program can also be a good foundation for a psychology- or other social science-related master’s, or even an advanced degree in the humanities. Studying integrative psychology may also be helpful for certain doctorates or medical degrees.
Here are a few specialized fields, all of which require advanced degrees or additional training, that might interest someone drawn to an online degree in integrative psychology:
- Family and marriage therapy.
- Social work.
- Holistic counseling.
- Holistic psychiatry.
- Psychiatric nursing.
- Community psychology.
- Public health.
- School psychology.
- Spiritual counseling. (ex: chaplain)
If you are considering using your BA as a stepping stone into a master’s in psychology program, you’ll be pleased to know that psychologists are in considerable demand. The BLS reports that the need for these professionals is expected to grow by 14% between now and 2026. This biggest need will be seen in clinical counseling and school psychology.
The BLS says the national average annual wage for psychologists is $100,770, and for the state of California, that figure is $114,860. Many psychologists have their own practices, so that might affect the national averages, so we’ll also look at a few different types of psychologists, individually:
- Industrial/organizational psychologists: $97,260.
- Social scientists: $78,650.
- Clinical, counseling, and school psychologists: $76,990.
Already in the Field? Integrative Psychology Is Still Valuable
The online degree could also appeal to current psychology professionals who are looking to broaden their knowledge or expand their services. Shook, a neuroscientist by trade, is an example of someone whose training is rooted in the hard sciences, but later opened up to new concepts.
“I’m a brain scientist. I teach biopsychology, psychopharmacology, abnormal behavior…,” she says, recalling the day she first brought up integrative psychology to her colleagues. “Their mouths were agape. They were like, ‘Brenda-the-brain-scientist is saying what?!’”
Shook makes it clear that integrative psychology doesn’t ignore science, but rather integrates it with other perspectives to explore what it means to be human. She says, for years, she discarded those other views she now accepts.
“It’s part of growth,” she says of her acceptance. “It’s part of being a lifelong learner. Science is just one way.”
Integrative psychology might be the branch of this discipline for you if you have an interest in both science and broader issues that affect the behavior and health of individuals and cultures. You can learn more about National University’s online degree program in integrative psychology on our program page.