Psychologists may soon be able to write out more than their patient's problems on those little notepads.

A statute in New Mexico that allows licensed doctors of psychology who have passed additional training to prescribe medication will become law on July 1, making it the first state in the country to do so. Four other states — Illinois, Georgia, Hawaii, and Tennessee — are considering similar legislation.

Many psychologists consider this a monumental victory for their profession. But the American Psychiatric Association and some other mental health professionals consider it a horrific mistake to give non-physicians the ability to prescribe drugs.

"Psychologists simply do not have the background or experience to safely and effectively use powerful medications in the treatment of mental illnesses," said a statement from APA President Dr. Richard K. Harding.

Psychologists may not have medical degrees, but the New Mexico law requires extensive training for those who want prescription certification. Among the requirements are 450 hours of coursework and another 400 hours treating at least 100 patients with mental disorders supervised by a psychiatrist or a physician.

Candidates must also pass a national exam, at which point they are eligible for a two-year license to prescribe psychiatric medication with a medical supervisor. Only after all of this can they prescribe on their own. 

Not surprisingly, the American Psychological Association is thrilled with New Mexico's decision.

"The ability to have access to all the kinds of treatments that one might find useful in treating patients is a very positive thing, from the professional, and I would hope consumer standpoint," said Dr. Russ Newman, executive director for professional practice for the group. 

Untreated mental health disorders cost business and the economy big money, according to the group. "In the United States, lost productivity and absenteeism due to untreated mental health disorders totals $312 billion annually. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 44.3 million Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder," a recent statement said.

Supporters say the new law will save time and money for patients who won't need to be referred out for physician referrals. "Allowing properly trained psychologists to prescribe is a logical step in helping to improve access to quality mental health care for consumers," Newman said.

Just 18 psychiatrists serve the 72 percent of New Mexicans who live outside Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and the waiting time for an appointment ranges from six weeks to five months, according to the psychologists' group. The group also says 75 percent of New Mexicans in that area who suffer from mental health disorders are not receiving treatment.

The scarcity of mental health care is one reason the four other states are considering similar legislation. Thirty-one state psychological associations have formed task forces to champion prescription writing privileges.

Legislation has been pending for the last two years in Georgia, said Sue Hamilton, lobbyist for the Georgia Psychological Association, and will be reintroduced again next year.

"There are areas of Georgia where there are no psychiatrists, and many physicians that are not psychiatrists don't have that much experience treating mental health," she said.

The issue has yet to be finally settled even in New Mexico. The statute requires a medical board of examiners and a pharmacists' group to agree on the specific requirements of the education and testing program. Only then will psychologists be cleared to write prescriptions.

But their decisions cannot decrease the amount of training the law requires psychologists to complete to prescribe. 

But Harding contends "no psychology-designed and administrated crash course in drug prescribing can substitute for the comprehensive knowledge and skills physicians achieve through medical education and rigorous clinical experience.

"Psychologists have always had a clear path to prescribing privileges: medical school."