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Psychiatric Pharmacist: Education and Career Information

Psychiatric pharmacists specialize in recommending and dispensing psychoactive medications meant to treat mental health issues ranging from depression and generalized anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. Working in conjunction with doctors, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses, psychiatric pharmacists offer knowledgeable insight into hundreds of different psychiatric drugs, how they affect brain chemistry, possibility of adverse effects and whether a certain medication may better address a patient’s psychological needs. In addition, psychiatric pharmacists often work with independent research labs or pharmaceutical companies to help design and clinically test new psychoactive drugs. They may also serve on the faculty at universities as graduate level course instructors.

Types of Medications Dispensed by Psychiatric Pharmacists

Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed psychoactive medications dispensed by licensed psychiatric pharmacists. Prescribed by physicians for treating depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders and drug/behavioral addictions, popular antidepressants include Prozac, Zoloft, Effexor, Cymbalta and Celexa. Antipsychotic medications are meant to treat symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychosis (paranoia, hallucinations). Since antipsychotics are powerful drugs often causing adverse side effects, a psychiatric pharmacist can provide psychiatrists information essential for optimizing and managing a patient’s medication program.

Benzodiazepines are prescribed for reducing anxiety, insomnia, panic attack, alcohol withdrawal symptoms and some seizure disorders. Opiates (narcotic analgesics) such as oxycodone and morphine relieve severe, chronic pain associated with advanced cancer or other serious diseases. Ritalin, Adderall and other stimulants dispensed by psychiatric pharmacists treat symptoms of attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatric pharmacists working for nursing homes or senior care facilities must also know when to dispense psychoactive medications and when to provide neurological psychiatric medications to individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or vascular/nonvascular dementia. These medications include Namenda (memantine) and cholinesterase inhibitors (Exelon and Aricept).

Educational Requirements for Psychiatric Pharmacists

Individuals interested in earning a psychiatric pharmacist degree must first receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmaceutical Studies. The University of California – Berkeley’s undergraduate pharmacy program includes the following classes:

•General and organic chemistry
•Mammalian physiology (classroom and laboratory)
•Physics (electromagnetism and thermodynamics)
•Microbiology/cellular processes
•Biochemistry
•Human developmental/abnormal psychology
•Medical ethics

Requirements for a B.S. in Pharmaceutical Studies may vary slightly among different universities, but involve these basic topics. Following completion of an undergraduate degree, students will need to earn a doctorate in pharmacy (Pharm.D). Graduate studies generally include further education regarding psychiatric drugs, effects of psychoactive drugs on the human brain and behavior and advanced abnormal psychology. Additionally, a dissertation or thesis will need developed and written by psychiatric pharmacy grad students in collaboration with their advisor.

Post-Graduate Work for Psychiatric Pharmacists

Although students with a Pharm.D. are qualified to work as a psychiatric pharmacist, most elect to complete two or more years of a residency or fellowship working with mental health clinics, institutions or research/pharmaceutical companies. During a residency or fellowship, psychiatric pharmacists may decide on which path to take regarding their career – academic, research or working in real life environments. If post-graduate studies involve academic or research projects, students may be expected by their university to submit one or more papers to relevant journals, conferences or symposiums.

An example of a psychiatric pharmacist’s residency (clinical) schedule is listed by the University of Michigan’s Department of Pharmacy Studies. Learning opportunities include the following subjects:

•Psychiatric emergency services (recommending psychoactive medications for patients suffering extreme mental health episodes)
•Adult inpatient psychiatric medication dispensation (working in hospitals/halfway houses/institutions where patients reside to obtain ongoing treatment)
•Child and adolescent psychiatry (interning with other psychiatric pharmacists at juvenile detention centers/hospitals/institutions)
•Rotational teaching appointments
•Conducting research projects

NAPLEX (North American Pharmacist Licensing Exam) is the test graduates must take and pass to be able to legally work as a pharmacist in the U.S. To learn more about the examination, visit the website’s FAQs page.

BPS Board Certified Psychiatric Pharmacist Program

By the time psychiatric pharmacy graduates have completed six to eight years of education and internships, they should be ready to take and pass the Board of Pharmacy Specialties certification examination.

The function of the Board Certified Psychiatric Pharmacists is to certify that a pharmacist possesses advanced knowledge of psychoactive medications essential for accurately dispensing them to individuals with mental health issues. A BCPP certification also indicates psychiatric pharmacists are experienced in optimizing outcomes for mentally ill people by:

•Implementing, designing, modifying and monitoring patient medication treatment plans
•Educating and collaborating with health care professionals
•Providing administrative support in public policy and health systems to improve quality of life for people with mental illnesses
To be eligible to sit for the examination, psychiatric pharmacists must have:
•Graduated from a pharmacy degree program that has been accredited by the ACPE (Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education)
•An active, current license to perform pharmacist duties within the U.S.
•Completed at least four years working as a pharmacist. Fifty percent of those four years must have been spent performing psychiatric pharmacy tasks described by the Psychiatric Pharmacy Content Outline. (2017), or –
•Completed a PGY1 residency and two more years of practice. Again, fifty percent of those four years must have been spent performing psychiatric pharmacy tasks described by the PPCO.

Board Certified Psychiatric Pharmacists (BCPPs) must recertify every seven years by passing a multiple-choice exam or acquiring at least 100 hours of continuing education credits. Programs providing credits must be approved by the Board of Pharmacy Specialists. A continuing education program is offered by the College of Psychiatric and Neurologic Pharmacists (CPNP).

Job Outlook and Average Salary for Psychiatric Pharmacists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides information about a career in general pharmacy practice, which is appropriately applicable to psychiatric pharmacy career fields. In 2016, the median pay for pharmacists was $122,000 annually. Individuals specializing in psychiatric pharmacy may earn more depending on where they practice.

The BLS reports the job outlook for psychiatric pharmacists over the next decade is expected to increase by three percent, a slower than average increase compared to other professional occupations. In addition, over 9000 new psychiatric pharmacist jobs are anticipated to emerge primarily due to population aging (dementia, Alzheimer, depression) and the ongoing opioid addiction crisis. However, employment of pharmacists who do not specialize in a particular field of pharmacological study is projected to decrease slightly.

Psychiatry Scholarships

American Psychological Foundation Scholarships Association of Black Psychologists Epilepsy Foundation
Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Child Psychology Graduate Student Fellowship Future Counselors of America Scholarship Gallagher Koster Health Careers Scholarship
Kay Wilson Presidential Leadership Award NIH Undergraduate Scholarship NAJA Graduate Scholarship
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Psi Chi Awards and Grants Wayne F. Placek Grants
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