Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More
My home state of Illinois is edging toward a point of no return, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. You see, the Illinois Senate Public Health Committee recently voted 8-0 to advance a bill that would allow licensed psychologists to prescribe medications for psychiatric purposes. Psychologists would be required to complete a master’s degree in psychopharmacology (the study of the use of medications to treat mental disorders), pass a national certification exam, and renew their certification every two years.
The Senate Committee’s passage of the measure is not a guarantee that the bill will actually be approved. Psychiatrists and physicians are lobbying hard against the bill, not surprisingly. I must admit that they make a compelling argument.
Consider the amount of training required in the journey to become a psychiatrist or other type of physician – years upon years of medical school, residency, and often a post-residency fellowship to acquire specialized experience in a field such as adolescent or geriatric psychiatry. A master’s degree in psychopharmacology, in contrast, takes a couple of years to complete and involves coursework (some of which is available online) plus 462 hours of supervised practice.
According to the Illinois Psychiatric Society, if the bill is approved, the state’s standards for prescribing medication would be the lowest in the United States. Granted, if this scenario comes to fruition, Illinois would join Louisiana and New Mexico as the only states that allow psychologists to prescribe drugs.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Yet psychologists and other proponents of the bill state that passing the measure is necessary to meet the growing needs of mental health clients in the state. The bill’s sponsors claim that a grave shortage of Illinois psychiatrists has led to an inability to adequately treat the state’s residents with mental illness. Plus, although Illinois would be one of only three states with such a measure, it should be noted that our nation’s military also allows psychologists to prescribe psychotropic medication.
So, what’s a state to do? According to the two sides, Illinois has only two choices: pass an unsafe bill or neglect to serve its residents with mental health problems. But are the legislature’s options really that limited and polarized?
My mind turns to several years ago when I was working on my doctorate in counseling psychology and planning on one day earning my license to practice. I ended up forgoing the license in order to work in community outreach and then to pursue a career in writing and teaching (none of which requires a license), but I remember the excitement and trepidation involved in planning a career as a mental health clinician. While I wanted to make a difference through counseling, the responsibility of such a vocation overwhelmed me. Looking back, prescribing medication in addition to providing psychotherapy would have been the last thing I would have wanted to do. Psychologists and psychiatrists exist for different, equally important reasons. They complement each other in their varying approaches to psychiatric phenomena, resulting in a more balanced treatment plan.
I understand that my home state is in a predicament, and I sure don’t want people’s mental health needs to go unmet. But is this really the road we want to travel? If psychologists are allowed to prescribe drugs, what group will lobby for this privilege next? Perhaps there are other solutions to this problem. For instance, why are psychiatrists so scarce in Illinois? Could incentives be offered to recruit more to our state? Could family physicians and internists – who already know how to prescribe drugs – receive additional training in psychiatry? Could psychiatric nurses be recruited to monitor clients on psychotropic drugs in order to lighten the workload of psychiatrists?
I’d be curious to know your thoughts on this issue. Do you feel that the bill should be passed, or is there a better solution?
Guerrero, R. (March 13, 2013). Senate committee passes bill allowing psychologists to prescribe drugs. Chicago Tribune: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-03-13/news/ct-met-illinois-legislature-psychologist-presrcipt-20130313_1_psychiatrists-psychologists-senate-committee (Note: An account may be required to access this article.)