In middle school, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The severity of this disorder prompted me and my parents to seek treatment from a mental health professional.
Unfortunately, when searching for qualified mental health professionals, my family ran into the same problem many of Utah’s families are now experiencing: the inability to receive proper mental health treatment due to a shortage of qualified professionals. No psychologists or psychiatrists with experience treating adolescent OCD lived in my town or even close to it. This fact not only resulted in me and my parents having to drive multiple hours every week to receive care, but delayed my treatment and exacerbated my wait time to get needed medication.
More and more individuals and families are experiencing what I went through. Utah is facing a mental health crisis that is being exacerbated by a shortage of mental health professionals, specifically psychologists, who can properly treat patients.
Within the state, suicide has become the leading cause of death among those 10 to 24 years of age, the number of adults suffering from poor mental health grew from 15.8% in 2009 to 17.5% in 2017, and more than half of adults with mental illness didn’t receive mental health treatment.
Psychologists are particularly important when discussing Utah’s shortage of mental health professionals because they are critical to helping those with mental health disorders recover. Such professionals work with clients to perform a variety of cognitive and behavioral therapies as well as create treatment plans. They often work with patients for a more extended period when compared to physicians and psychiatrists. Additionally, these professionals often fill gaps in service left by shortages of other professionals.
Currently, scope of practice laws are limiting psychologists from being able to most effectively assist those with mental health disorders and are keeping them from moving to the state. Specifically, laws that do not allow psychologists to prescribe psychotropic medication are handicapping these professionals from alleviating Utah’s mental health disaster. Overturning such restrictive laws for psychologists can serve as a solution to fill gaps in mental health treatment and minimize professional shortages.
Such restrictive laws are placing a large burden on the mentally ill instead of assisting them, and already struggling rural communities are the most negatively impacted. Their citizens may not even have a psychiatrist or a physician who can prescribe them medication, in their town. This presents a challenge to those who are already suffering and may find it challenging to attend appointments, as it requires additional time and costs to receive care.
Psychologists are already prescribing medication in five states. All of these states made the move to allow for prescription following similar problems to what Utah is experiencing—a shortage of trained psychiatrists and prescribing professionals. Currently, New Mexico, Louisiana, Idaho, Illinois, and Iowa all allow psychologists to prescribe medications.
These changes have been successful with, as of 2021, there being over 200 prescribing psychologists in the United States and hundreds more on track to receive certification. Additionally, after making the discussed change, Idaho saw the largest drop in suicide during the pandemic of any state—a reduction of 3.5 individuals per 100,000 in 2020.
In Utah, such a change will improve mental health outcomes through the alleviation of professional shortages because the ability to prescribe medication boosts these professionals’ salaries and allows them to more effectively help patients. When these professionals can move to Utah and increase their salary, many will jump at the opportunity. These new psychologists will fill needed roles in communities that have been neglected for too long.
Adopting this law in Utah doesn’t make sense just because it has worked in other states, but also because the United States military has allowed psychologists to prescribe medicine for almost 20 years.
This legislation is not asking for a large expansion to scope of practice laws. Utah has already made similar changes. In fact, during the 2021 legislative session, Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble and Rep. Doug Welton saw legislation pass that increased medical professionals’ scope of practice by expanding the ability for non-physicians to write prescriptions. These non-physicians, such as nurse practitioners, receive less training in clinical pharmacology, therapeutics and psychopharmacology than many clinical psychologists.
With states already adopting laws to allow psychologists to prescribe medication, Utah elected officials lessening scope of practice laws, and our own military granting psychologists prescription privileges, it only makes sense for this law to come to fruition.
Ben Shelton is a policy associate at Libertas Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Lehi, Utah.