What is Psychopharmacology? An In-Depth Look

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A nurse practitioner talks with a patient.

Psychopharmacology, the use of medications to treat mental disorders, is one of the most complex and dynamic fields in health care. The number of psychopharmaceuticals available to treat mental disorders continues to grow, as does the medical community’s understanding of the complex interactions between medications and body chemistry and the medications’ effects on behavior. These challenges require nurse practitioners (NPs) and other medical professionals involved in psychopharmacology to have expertise in not only psychopharma therapeutics but psychotherapies and psychological assessment as well.

To understand the importance of psychopharmacology, consider the scale of the issue the field addresses: nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. lives with a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Advanced education such as that offered in an online post-master’s certificates program can provide psychiatric mental health NPs with the extensive training and holistic outlook necessary to expand their role in psychopharmacology.

What Is Psychopharmacology?

Combining the principles of psychology and pharmacology, psychopharmacology applies various medications to treat mental health conditions related to attention, behavior, mood, and thought process. The use of the antipsychotic chlorpromazine (better known by the trade name Thorazine) in the 1950s is generally considered the beginning of modern psychopharmacology. The field has exploded since and now includes antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood stabilizers, and stimulants used to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The use of medications to treat mental disorders requires knowledge of psychopharmacological principles, an ability to comprehend scientific data, and clinical experience. To effectively address mental disorders with medications, practitioners must observe behavior, understand its biological basis, and apply knowledge of how medications interact with biology to influence behavior. The challenge is made greater by the fact that so many medications exist, and their applications and effects — positive and negative — are so varied.

Consider selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a classification of drugs that boost levels of serotonin, a natural substance in the brain that helps maintain mental balance. Starting with the commercial introduction of fluoxetine (Prozac) in the late 1980s, the use of SSRIs increased with widespread use of medications such as citalopram (Celexa), paroxetine (Paxil), fluvoxamine (Luvox), and escitalopram (Lexapro). Prozac was first used to treat clinical depression, but today SSRIs such as sertraline (Zoloft), among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., are also prescribed for obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and other conditions.

SSRIs help millions cope with mental disorders, but they also come with a host of risks. Side effects associated with sertraline, for example, range from minor conditions such as nausea and dry mouth to serious conditions such as seizures and abnormal bleeding. Study of the effects of long-term use of antidepressants and other psychopharmaceuticals continues.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners and Psychopharmacology

Nurses are well suited for an expanded role in psychopharmacology because medication management requires strong interpersonal and communications skills and broad knowledge of patient care. Training that builds upon these skills and dives deeper into research along with diagnostic and therapeutic requirements prepares nurses to address patients’ psychopharmacological needs.

The complexity of psychopharmacology requires continuous study to monitor advances. The ever-expanding array of psychotherapeutic drugs requires NPs to stay up to date on new drugs and the regulations and policies governing their use. Practitioners must understand not only the potential benefits and adverse effects of a pharmacotherapeutic agent, but also how individuals with widely varying characteristics, cognitive conditions, and emotional states might be affected by it. Building trust and rapport allows nurses to better understand a patient’s general health, medical conditions, observed behavior, and life circumstances — all crucial for building an effective pharmacological treatment strategy.

Psychotherapeutic drugs are used in combination with psychotherapies and psychological assessment, requiring nurses to expand their diagnostic and treatment expertise. Nurses specializing in psychiatric mental health study concepts of basic neuroscience, clinical medicine, diagnosis of mental disorders, and pharmacology. Specific areas of pharmacological study include protein binding (how available the medication is to the body), half-life (how long the medication stays in the body), polymorphic genes (genes that vary from person to person), and drug interactions.

Developing Skills Through an Advanced Degree

For nurses who are interested in providing patients with mental health care, Regis College’s online post-master’s certificates program and its Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) specialization offer a curriculum covering pharmacology, pathophysiology, and health assessment. Students are prepared with advanced nursing skills such as analysis of patients’ interactions with psychopharmaceuticals. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners perform comprehensive treatment planning and provide diagnostic evaluations, psychotropic medication management, and therapy.

Regis College’s PMHNP specialization includes coursework in psychotherapies and advanced psychopharmacology to provide care for psychiatric mental health clients, with courses such as Advanced Clinical Pharmacology. PMHNPs are prepared to work in multiple environments providing direct care, as well as consulting and training. Regis College’s program includes an MSN-to-NP program with a psychiatric mental health concentration, as well as an online post-master’s certificate in psychiatric mental health for active NPs.

Learn More About the Role of Nurses in Psychopharmacology

Conditions in the U.S. health care sector are boosting demand for nurses with expertise in psychopharmacology. Responding to a shortage of primary care services, more nurse practitioners are needed to provide primary care, especially in the psychiatric mental health specialization. Find out how the online post-master’s certificates program at Regis College prepares nurses to serve this growing need with training in the latest psychotherapies and psychopharmacology.
Recommended Readings

Nurse Safety and Prescribing Medications: A Delicate Balance

The Nurse’s Responsibility in the Field of Clinical Pharmacology

What Degree Does a Nurse Practitioner Need? Why Advanced Programs Are Critical


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Medical Expenditure Panel Survey

American Psychological Association, Psychopharmacology

American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology, What Is Psychopharmacology

MedlinePlus, Sertraline

National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Health Medications

Psychiatric Times, “The Psychopharmacology of Depression: Strategies, Formulations, and Future Implications”

Psychology Today, Psychopharmacology Medication