Opioid misuse and mental illness often occur together, requiring an even broader array of resources across the health care system. Medications play an important role in managing substance use and mental illness. Pharmacists are medication experts and one of the most accessible health care professionals, yet they have been underutilized in fighting this epidemic.

Pharmacists are making a difference every day by dispensing medications like naloxone and educating the public about this lifesaving antidote for opioid overdose. In most cases, state laws allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone directly to the public without a written prescription. Expanded naloxone distribution saves lives and is particularly crucial in rural areas, where access to emergency care may be limited.

Pharmacists’ role in patient care

However, pharmacists can play an even larger role in the care of these patients. They receive years of training to educate patients, manage and monitor medications, including for side effects and drug interactions, and, in some cases, order medications. Allowing pharmacists to practice at the full extent of their education expands access to care. When pharmacists gained the authority to administer flu shots and other vaccinations, immunization rates significantly increased. As a result, 280,000 pharmacists are trained to administer vaccines.

Long-acting injectable medications are used to treat mental health conditions and substance use disorders, and help assure patients get their medications as prescribed. In many states, trained pharmacists can administer these medications in community pharmacies and clinic settings, enhancing access to treatment just as they do with vaccinations. 

“Pharmacists can expand access, optimize the impact of medications and improve medication safety by providing patient care services beyond dispensing of medications.”

Expanding access to care

Pharmacists can also expand access, optimize the impact of medications and improve medication safety by providing patient care services beyond dispensing of medications. The majority of states allow pharmacists to prescribe or adjust patient medications and monitor medication effects in collaboration with a physician through laws permitting “collaborative practice.” These pharmacists, who most frequently work in clinics or hospitals, often have additional training and certifications. Patients with substance use disorders and mental illness often require complicated medication regimens. Collaboration between prescribers and these specialized pharmacists helps to optimize medication selection, improve safety and expand access to care, especially in areas with a shortage of health professionals.

Employing new strategies is key to increasing access to treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders. Utilizing pharmacists’ extensive education and skills in medication management can help address the gap in care.