When it comes to treating mental illnesses in patients who have dual-diagnosis issues (now called co-occurring disorders), perhaps few areas are as important for medical professionals to understand as psychopharmacology.
What is psychopharmacology?
Psychopharmacology is defined by The American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology as the study of the use of medications in treating mental disorders. It is a very complex field that is always changing and thus requires continuous study in order to keep current with new advances. As new medicines develop and mental conditions are further understood, this area can change drastically.
The American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology also notes that a psychopharmacologist must understand all the clinically relevant principles of pharmacokinetics (what the body does to medication) and pharmacodynamics (what the medications do to the body).
- These areas include:
- How medications affect one another
- Protein binding (how available the medication is to the body)
- Polymorphic genes (which vary widely from person to person)
- Half-life (how long the medication stays in the body)
Other areas that are useful to understand when prescribing medicines that treat mental illnesses are: neuroscience, clinical medicine, and being proficient with diagnosing mental disorders and knowing what treatment options are available.
How do you become a Psychopharmacologist?
The American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology says that any physician who treats a patient with a psychotropic medication is technically a Psychopharmacologist. Physicians who have completed residency training after medical school have a high level of understanding and expertise in pharmacology. Psychiatrists with four years of advanced training after medical school have an even higher level of understanding and expertise in this area of medicine.
Psychopharmacologists also must be able to maintain or leverage a beneficial, therapeutic alliance with their patients: if a patient doesn’t like working with a person, doesn’t trust them, or doesn’t get along with a doctor, it has the potential to aggravate their condition.
What is Psychopharmacology Important?
For mental health meds, as with any other medication, there can be unintended consequences if the wrong type or dosage is prescribed. Most meds that are used to treat mental illnesses impact brain chemistry. If a person has a low level of one chemical, they may need a medication to raise it to what is considered regular. This is very much true many people with diagnosed depression. They may be prescribed anti-depressants or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) which increase levels of serotonin.
According to SAMHSA’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 43.6 million Americans ages 18 and up experience some form of mental illness. This make up over 18% of the total US population. In 2014 there were 20.2 million adults (8.4%), who had a substance use disorder. These numbers are rising. Of the 20.2 million, an estimated 9 million have both a mental disorder and substance use disorder (a co-occurring condition). With all these potential problems to address, it is more important than ever to be sure that the right medication is being supplied to the right people.
Psychopharmacology plays a critical role in serving the mentally ill and substance abusers. With it, they may have a chance to live purposeful lives, recover from any addictions, and hopefully contribute to society. Without it, we will likely continue to see a rise in serious public health risks, crime, and homelessness.
American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology