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How to become a prescribing psychologist –
How to become a prescribing psychologist –

Colorado ranks 45th in the nation in unmet need for mental health care, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America, and nearly every county in the state reports a shortage of mental health professionals. “The timeline to see a psychiatrist in the state of Colorado is two years, and it’s usually a one-time consultation,” said Dr. Amy Wachholtz, program director of clinical psychopharmacology at CU Denver. And this problem isn’t limited to Colorado: States across the country are grappling with similar issues.

When Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed HB23-1071 into law on March 3, 2023, it was an important milestone in improving mental health care because it created a framework for psychologists in the state to become prescribing professionals. The change in the law expanded the roles of psychologists and psychopharmacologists.

Integrating psychological and pharmacological treatment approaches improves the accessibility and comprehensiveness of mental health care, providing Coloradans with a significantly larger pool of mental health professionals to assist them in their time of need. But Colorado is not the only state addressing mental health needs through psychopharmacology. Job openings for psychopharmacologists have grown steadily year over year across the country. Lightcast, a labor market data company, reported 29% growth in annual proxy job postings and 66% growth in annual PhD job postings from 2018 to 2022.

To meet the mental health needs of our communities and support the strong job market in this field, CU Denver’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) recently launched the postdoctoral Master of Science in Clinical Psychopharmacology (MSCP). The MSCP is the first and only program being developed in Colorado and is just one of six programs nationwide. The program – designed to produce licensed, prescribing psychologists – strives to meet the needs of Colorado’s citizens at a time when the state is responding quickly to meet the growing demand for mental health professionals.

Clinical Psychopharmacology at CU Denver

The MSCP postdoctoral master’s program has a background in clinical psychopharmacology, introduces students to new psychopharmacology research, and promotes ethical and cultural integration of responsive clinical psychology practices. It is primarily aimed at postdoctoral psychologists but is open to many career paths in the medical field.

The program offers the opportunity to become a licensed prescribing psychologist through the Prescribing Fellowship Certificate (PF-C). This program, which is housed in the Clinical Health Psychology PhD program, is directed by Wachholtz.

Why did we create the MSCP? We need psychologists to prescribe, administer therapy and medication while working with primary care physicians. Prescribing psychologists are experts in psychotherapy and the biopsychosocial model – we have more tools in the toolbox to treat patients’ mental health, much more than just medication. In this program, we combine medicine and psychotherapy to treat a person more holistically.

—Amy Wachholtz, PhD, MDiv, MSCP, Program Director of Clinical Health Psychology and Clinical Psychopharmacology

MS Program in Clinical Psychopharmacology

The CU Denver MSCP also maintains valuable connections with the CU Denver Biology Department and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. It is designed to meet the rigorous standards of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the State of Colorado for prescribing psychologist education. Led by experienced faculty members, the curriculum covers important topics including clinical science, neuroscience, pharmacology, pathology, and clinical medicine. The program combines online courses with an intensive on-campus course to provide flexibility for working professionals while maintaining academic rigor.

Certificate for Fellowship in Prescribing

In addition to the MSCP, students have the opportunity to earn a Prescribing Fellowship Certificate (PF-C). This certificate program, which covers the third year of study, offers supervised practice opportunities to meet state licensure requirements. Through clinical rotations and field experience, students develop the skills necessary to prescribe medications safely and effectively under the guidance of experienced professionals.

Career forecasts and opportunities

Both nationally and in Colorado, psychologists – and mental health professionals in general – are in demand. Lightcast reported that job openings for psychologists have increased year over year, with 2,836 jobs added nationwide from 2021 to 2022, and that psychologists in Colorado reported a median salary of $130,300. In addition, Lightcast’s reports indicated that the employment situation for psychologists in Colorado is growing:

  • 85% growth, annual proxy job postings (2018-2022)
  • 89% growth in annual job postings for PhD students (2018-2022)

Not only is there growth in the professional field, psychology education has also grown steadily year over year since 2018. The National Center for Education Statistics reported:

  • Number of APA program awards in 2022: 59
  • Growth in awards compared to the previous year: 44%
Amy Wacholtz, PhD, program director of clinical psychopharmacology at CU Denver.

Amy Wachholtz, PhD, MDiv, MSCP is an Associate Professor of Psychology at CU Denver and Director of the Clinical Health Psychology Program. Wachholtz earned a Master of Divinity from Boston University, where she specialized in bioethics. She earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Bowling Green State University with a dual specialization in behavioral medicine and psychology of religion. She completed her internship as part of fellowship training at Duke University, where she focused on medical psychology and pain management. She also completed a postdoctoral master’s degree in psychopharmacology. Her primary research, teaching, and clinical interests focus on a bio-psycho-social-spiritual model of chronic pain disorders and the complexities of treating comorbid pain and opioid dependence in both acute and chronic pain settings. Her translational research ranges from human psychophysiological investigations in the laboratory to the development and implementation of empirically validated treatments. She is funded by the National Institutes of Health to research comorbid pain and opioid dependence and has also received a number of smaller grants to improve multidimensional pain management in patients with advanced cancer, reduce burnout in health care professionals, and evaluate cross-cultural concepts of health and well-being. She enjoys teaching students about health psychology and connections between biology and psychology in the classroom, clinical setting, and research.