Psychology is a respected mental health discipline with strong psychotherapy training and orientation. For decades, psychologists have vigorously criticized the medical model of mental disorders that psychiatric physicians employ to diagnose and treat brain disorders that disrupt thinking, emotions, mood, cognition, and behavior. However, about 25 years ago, a small group of militant psychologists brazenly decided to lobby state legislatures to give them the right to prescribe psychotropics, although they have no formal medical training. Psychiatric physicians, represented by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), strongly opposed this initiative and regarded it as reckless disregard of the obvious need for extensive medical training to be able to prescribe drugs that affect every organ in the body, not only the brain. Psychiatric medications are associated with serious risks of morbidity and mortality.2 The ability to safely prescribe any medication represents the tip of a huge iceberg of 8 years of rigorous medical school education and specialty training. Yet, one of the early proponents of prescription privileges for psychologists, Patrick De Leon, sarcastically likened the ability to prescribe drugs to learning how to operate a desktop computer!
Not all psychologists agreed with the political campaign to lobby state legislatures to pass a law authorizing prescriptive privileges for psychologists.3-6 In fact, most academic psychologists oppose it.7 Most of the early supporters had a PsyD degree from professional schools of psychology, not a PhD degree in psychology, which is obtained from a university department of psychology. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is opposed to psychologists prescribing medications.8 Psychiatrists are outraged by this hazardous “solution” to the shortage of psychiatrists and point to the many potential dangers to patients. Some suggested that this is a quick way to enhance psychologists’ income and to generate more revenue for their professional journals and meetings with lucrative pharmaceutical ads and exhibit booths.
The campaign is ongoing, as Idaho became the fifth state to adopt such an ill-conceived “solution” to increasing access to mental health care, despite valiant effort by the APA to lobby against such laws. Although New Mexico (2002), Louisiana (2004), Illinois (2014), and Iowa (2016) have passed prescriptive authority for psychologists before Idaho, the APA has defeated such measures in numerous other states. But the painful truth is that this has been a lengthy political chess game in which psychologists have been gradually gaining ground and “capturing more pieces.”
Here is a brief, common sense rationale as to the need for full medical training necessary before safely and accurately prescribing medications, most of which are synthetic molecules, which are essentially foreign substances, with both benefits and risks detailed in the FDA-approved label of each drug that reaches the medical marketplace.
First: Making an accurate clinical diagnosis. If a patient presents with depression, the clinician must rule out other possible causes before diagnosing it as primary major depressive disorder for which an antidepressant can be prescribed. The panoply of secondary depressions, which are not treated with antidepressants, includes a variety of recreational drug-induced mood changes and dysphoria and depression induced by numerous prescription drugs (such as antihypertensives, hormonal contraceptives, steroids, interferon, proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers, malaria drugs, etc.).
After drug-induced depression is ruled out, the clinician must rule out the possibility that an underlying medical condition might be causing the depression, which includes disorders such as hypothyroidism and other endocrinopathies, anemia, stroke, heart disease, hyperkalemia, lupus and other autoimmune disorders, cancer, Parkinsonism, etc. Therefore, a targeted exploration of past and current medical history, accompanied by a battery of lab tests (complete blood count, electrolytes, liver and kidney function tests, metabolic profile, thyroid-stimulating hormone, etc.) must be done to systematically arrive at the correct diagnosis. Only then can the proper treatment plan be determined, which may or may not include prescribing an antidepressant.
Conclusion: Medical training and psychiatric residency are required for an accurate diagnosis of a mental disorder. Even physicians with no psychiatric training might not have the full repertoire of knowledge needed to systematically rule out secondary depression.
Second: Drug selection. Psychiatric drugs can have various iatrogenic effects. Thus, the selection of an appropriate prescription medication from the available array of drugs approved for a given psychiatric indication must be safe and consistent with the patient’s medical history and must not potentially exacerbate ≥1 comorbid medical conditions.
Conclusion: Medical training and psychiatric residency are required.
Third: Knowledge of metabolic pathways of each psychiatric medication to be prescribed as well as the metabolic pathway of all other medications (psychiatric and non-psychiatric) the patient receives is essential to avoid adverse drug–drug interactions. This includes the hepatic enzymes (cytochromes), which often are responsible for metabolizing all the psychiatric and non-psychiatric drugs a patient is receiving. Knowledge of inhibitors and inducers of various cytochrome enzymes is vital for selecting a medication that does not cause a pharmacokinetic adverse reaction that can produce serious adverse effects (even death, such as with QTc prolongation) or can cause loss of efficacy of ≥1 medications that the patient is receiving, in addition to the antidepressant. Also, in addition to evaluating hepatic pathways, knowledge of renal excretion of the drug to be selected and the status of the patient’s kidney function or impairment must be evaluated.
Conclusion: Medical training is required.