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Can Psychologists Prescribe Medication?

Dear Psychologist,

I am studying to become a psychologist. I have heard that some psychologists can prescribe medication. Is this true? What do I need to do? Best, George

Dear George,

Your question is an interesting one, as the issue of whether psychologists should be able to prescribe medication has been controversial in the last ten years.

When Psychiatrists Prescribed

Historically, psychiatrists were the professionals one would go to if needing medication for a psychiatric condition such as psychosis, anxiety, or depression. Psychiatrists attend medical school like other doctors and receive specialized training in their field. Although psychiatrists once also conducted psychoanalytic therapy sessions with their patients, in time their specialty became much more restricted to medication, mainly because it was more costly to see a psychiatrist than a psychologist or counselor.

New Prescription Privileges

So traditionally psychologists have not been able to prescribe medication. In fact the ability to prescribe medication has been one of the defining differences between psychiatry and psychology.

What would psychologists do if they had a patient that needed an anti-depressant or anti-psychotic medication? Most private practice therapists have a psychiatrist they feel comfortable referring their clients to. In mental health clinics, there is usually a psychiatrist to call upon when needed.

In the last decade, however, psychologists have begun to fight for the right to prescribe medication. Their argument is that the treatment will be smoother and more contained within one provider. A psychologist treating his patient knows that patient well and should have a grasp what the patient needs. Many psychologists want to be able to have this kind of control over their treatment cases.

Both the associations of psychiatry and of psychology have strong opinions on the topic, and each is seeing the situation from their own profession’s world view. A Psychology Today article discussed how the states of New Mexico and Lousiana now allow psychologists to prescribe medication if they get the proper post-doctoral training, a rigorous program of several years.

Some nurses and physician’s assistants are now able to prescribe medication as well, as long as they get the correct training to do so. This ability is particularly valuable in rural areas or other places that might not have enough psychiatrists.

New Directions for Psychologists

What will the future hold for psychology? Some people think that other states will follow New Mexico and Lousiana’s lead. In fact, just last spring Oregon passed a law allowing psychologists to get post-doctoral training in order to prescribe. But if psychologists can prescribe medication to their clients, what will that mean for the field of psychiatry? These questions ensure that the debate will continue to be a lively one.

If you feel strongly about being able to prescribe, you might want to look into post-doctoral programs after you finish your psychology degree. At the least, you will set yourself up for possible future changes and have a better understanding of what the issues are with medication use in your patients.

For more information on this topic see the American Psychological Association’s summary.

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