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What Is a Psychopharmacologist?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

Psychopharmacology is the study of the use of medications in treating mental disorders. Generally, any physician or psychiatrist who treats patients with psychotropic medication is considered a psychopharmacologist. If you are looking for psychotropic medication to improve your mental health, you may meet with a psychopharmacologist.

Psychopharmacology is often confused with pharmacology. Pharmacology is a branch of science that deals with the study of how drugs work in the body. 

What Does a Psychopharmacologist Do?

Psychopharmacologists need to understand all the clinically relevant principles of pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. Pharmacokinetics is what the body does to medication and pharmacodynamics is what the medications do to the body. They have a thorough understanding of:

  • Drug-to-drug interactions: How medications affect one another
  • Half-life: How long the medication stays in the body
  • Protein binding: How available the medication is to the body
  • Polymorphic genes: Genes which vary widely from person to person

Psychotropic medications include:

  • Antidepressants: Commonly used to treat depression or for other health conditions such as anxiety, pain, and insomnia
  • Anti-anxiety medications: May help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, such as panic attacks, extreme fear, or worry
  • Stimulants: Increase alertness, attention, and energy 
  • Antipsychotics: Primarily used to manage psychosis 
  • Mood Stabilizers: Primarily used to treat bipolar disorder, mood swings, and in some cases to augment the effect of other medications used to treat depression 

Education and Training

Any physician who treats patients with psychotropic medication is considered a psychopharmacologist. This field requires continuous study in order to keep abreast of new advances. Like all physicians, they must complete both medical school and residency training:

Physicians who complete residency training after medical school have a high level of understanding of pharmacology, including psychopharmacology. Psychiatrists who have completed four years of advanced training after medical school should also have expertise in psychopharmacology. 

Psychopharmacologists have an extensive understanding of basic neuroscience, psychopharmacology, clinical medicine, diagnosis of mental disorders, and treatment options. They are also skilled in building and utilizing a therapeutic alliance with the patient.

Reasons to See a Psychopharmacologist

Medications can help improve most mental health conditions. Research shows that the most effective treatments for most mental health conditions involve a combination of medications and psychotherapy

Medications are often recommended when symptoms are moderate to advanced and they have not improved with therapy alone. A therapist may recommend you seek a consultation with a psychiatrist — or physician specializing in psychopharmacology — for an evaluation and to discuss what role medications may play in your treatment.

Psychiatric medications can only be prescribed by a licensed medical professional, such as a psychiatrist or nurse practitioner. A psychiatrist should be involved if multiple psychiatric medications are prescribed or if the medications require monitoring.

What to Expect at the Psychopharmacologist

Whether you choose to see a psychiatrist or a physician, they can perform a full range of medical and psychological tests. They will have a discussion with you to understand the full picture of your physical and mental state. Their education and clinical training help them to understand the complex relationship between emotional and other medical illnesses, genetics, and family history. 

At your appointment, they will evaluate the gathered medical and psychological data to make a diagnosis and work with you to develop a treatment plan.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychiatric Society: “What is Psychiatry?”

American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology: “What is Psychopharmacology” 

Australian Government Department of Health: “What is Pharmacology?” 

National Institute of Mental Health: "Mental Health Medications"

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