What Is a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNPs) are advanced-practice registered nurses who provide comprehensive mental health care to patients suffering from behavioral problems and mental health disorders. Not only do PMHNPs provide diagnostic care and treatment, they also focus on psychiatric/mental health maintenance and wellness. They use both medicinal and therapeutic interventions in treatment plans to help patients. Depending on the state in which they practice, oversight by physicians may or may not be required.

How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners are advanced-practice registered nurses (APRNs) who have completed a master's program in nursing (MSN) or doctoral degree program (DNP).

To advance to a master's degree or doctorate in nursing, a student must first complete an accredited nursing program and obtain a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN). Successful completion of the NCLEX-RN is needed for licensure.

Once the prerequisites have been completed, students will need to do the following in order to become a PMHNP:

  1. With a BSN in hand, a student can enroll in either an MSN or DNP-level PMHNP program. It’s imperative that the student decides on the degree level before they start applying to programs. The right degree level will depend on the student’s professional goals; if they wish to do clinical work in a hospital setting, an MSN may be the right choice. If they wish to go into teaching or administration, the DNP may be the better fit. Prospective students are encouraged to consider their career goals and research programs accordingly.
  2. Find an ACEN or CCNE-accredited Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program. Online, hybrid, and classroom-based programs are all available.
  3. Ensure that you meet all admissions requirements and complete the application fully.
  4. Upon completion of the program, take the certification exam to obtain proper PMHNP certification.

The length of time it takes to earn an MSN or DNP-level Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner degree depends on the nurse’s starting point:

  • As stated earlier, students will need to hold a BSN in order to enroll in an MSN or DNP PMHNP program. Nursing students enrolled in a BSN program complete in about four years; RN to BSN students can complete in about two years

From there:

  • BSN to MSN takes about two years
  • BSN to DNP takes three to four years
  • MSN to DNP takes one to two years

Read more about psychiatric nurse practitioner programs, post master’s psychiatric NP graduate certificate programs, RN to NP programs.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner FAQs

Public health emergencies and disasters often have unique challenges that require flexible solutions. Different disasters and emergencies necessitate different health service needs, depending on who they impact and how.

Exposure to disasters, including hurricanes, fires, floods, and contagious disease outbreaks can severely affect many individuals' mental health, which can add to the rising needs of services that are already stretched thin.

During times of crisis, it is critical that mental health professionals, including psychiatric nurses and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs), provide services immediately after the event. Populations exposed to traumatic events frequently experience anxiety, depression, grief, and mental stress. It is not uncommon for people to attempt to regulate their mental disorders through alcohol and substance abuse. If mental health professionals cannot make themselves available physically - for instance, due to road closures after a natural disaster - telehealth options can be utilized to ensure that patients are able to access care quickly.

Following an emergency or natural disaster, it is normal for mental health administrators to be overextended. Through careful planning, implementation, and community efforts, clinics can apply trauma knowledge to their communities. Survivors of natural disasters must get the PTSD care they need, along with other mental health needs.

Mental health professionals, especially psychiatric nurses, are in high demand in the face of shortages, especially in rural areas. According to reports, one in five Americans has a mental health or substance abuse issue. Across the country, many patients are burdened with unmet needs, which is where telehealth comes in.

Mental health treatments do not rely on a physical exam or contact to treat medical conditions. Most mental health sessions rely on emotional connections and the ability to hold conversations. Often, a video or phone platform is sufficient for creating a safe space. During times of crisis or natural disasters, telehealth psychiatric sessions can remove stress and fears that come with traveling beyond the safety of one’s home.

Telehealth services can impact mental health by addressing the nationwide shortage of mental health professionals. Now, a psychiatric nurse can extend their geographic sessions and treat patients who are hundreds of miles away. This allows our telehealth psychiatric care to grow and meet the demands of many Americans.

Access to mental health services is critical, especially for mobility-challenged patients, those unable to leave the house, those lacking dependable transportation, and those who live in remote areas. Many psychiatrists and therapists are able to lower their hourly fees to treat low-income patients without having to leave their homes.

Depending on where a psychiatric nurse practitioner works, the dress code can be variable.

Psychiatric NPs working in acute care (i.e., emergency rooms or inpatient units) may wear scrubs and a lab coat with the facility logo. They can also wear professional, business attire with or without a lab coat. It depends on the facility.

Psychiatric NPs working in the clinic setting can wear business attire. A lab coat may or may not be required by the organization. Some feel that providers who do not wear scrubs and a lab coat are more "approachable" therefore allowing patients to be more receptive to care. It helps place patients at ease and makes them feel more comfortable. Many psychiatric nurse practitioners prefer a less “clinical” environment when treating patients, and shunning the scrubs and lab coat helps build a quiet, comforting environment.

Regardless of the setting, psychiatric nurse practitioners must also consider safety when choosing professional attire. Sometimes patients experience acute mental illnesses and may view the provider as a threat. Dangling jewelry, lanyards, strings, neckties, and even belt loops can be grabbed and used to harm a provider. Dressing for safety as well as professionalism is essential in the field of mental health.

What Are the Education Requirements for a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

Some graduate programs require nurses to gain a few years of clinical experience before enrollment. Some schools allow nurses to work concurrently during the program. Regardless, obtaining clinical experience in mental health is crucial as it prepares the future PMHNP to be able to address a multitude of psychiatric as well as medical concerns and situations.

Master’s degree programs require the completion of general advanced-practice courses, as well as courses specific to the psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner track. General advanced-practice courses include concepts such as:

  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Advanced pathophysiology
  • Advanced health assessment
  • Pharmacology for advanced practice nurses

Depending on the school, the curriculum for PMHNP can vary, but core concepts include:

  • Individual and family psychotherapy
  • Psychiatric-mental health nursing across the lifespan
  • Advanced assessment in psychiatric-mental health nursing
  • Psychopharmacology

Are Any Certifications or Credentials Needed?

Upon completion of the MSN or DNP program, nurse practitioners can obtain certification in psychiatric-mental health. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers certification for graduates. Requirements include:

  • Hold a current RN license
  • Hold a master's, postgraduate, or doctoral degree from an accredited program
  • Have worked a minimum of 500 supervised clinical hours within the PMHNP program
  • Have completed courses in advanced pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and advanced pharmacology
  • Have studied content in health promotion/maintenance, differential diagnosis, and disease management including prescribing medications, and clinical training in at least two areas of psychotherapy

Certification is by exam and is valid for five years.

The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board offers certification for nurse practitioners and prepares them to work as pediatric primary care mental health specialists (PMHS). Eligibility for testing includes:

  • Current APRN license
  • Current certification as an APRN in the role and population foci in one of the following:
    • Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
    • Family Nurse Practitioner
    • Child/Adolescent Psychiatric & Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist
    • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
  • Graduate from an accredited MSN, DNP, or post-master's certificate college or university with one of the following concentrations:
    • Primary Care PNP
    • Family Nurse Practitioner
    • Child/Adolescent Psychiatric Clinical Nurse Specialist
    • Child/Adolescent Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • A minimum of 2,000 hours of APRN pediatric developmental, behavioral, and mental health (DBMH) clinical experience within the last three years
  • A new requirement was added as of 2018: either one graduate-level DBMH course of at least two credits or 30 hours of DBMH continuing education in the last three years

Licensure and certification are different. Certification means the PMHNP is competent to perform care in a psychiatric setting; licensure means they are legally permitted to practice in their state of residence. State nursing boards list the requirements for testing and can vary from state to state. The certified psychiatric nurse practitioner can, after meeting the specified requirements, apply to the state board for licensure. Read more for further clarity on psychiatric nurse certifications.

What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Do?

Nurses who enjoy practicing independently and who wish to diagnose and prescribe while still utilizing nursing skills can advance to the field of advanced-practice nursing. Nurses who seek to pursue their NP should value autonomy, integrity, and leadership. Thriving PMHNPs tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Emotional intelligence. Working with mental health patients can be emotionally draining. Providers must be able to recognize feelings and emotions and deal with them appropriately.
  • Emotional stability. Some patients seeking mental health treatment have suffered from abuse or violence, or have been the victim of a crime. Providers must be able to stay calm and avoid reacting to the emotional strain of caring for patients with mental health disorders.
  • Good professional judgment. PMHNPs should advocate for their patients and know when to bring in additional resources to aid in their care. Additionally, they must remain vigilant as some of their patients are unstable and can act impulsively.
  • Empathy. Demonstrating empathy means having the ability to understand and share the feelings of others based on their frame of reference.
  • Patience and flexibility. Mental health does not improve overnight. There can be progression as well as regression during treatment. PMHNPs must reassess and adjust the plan of care as needed to keep patients on the right track.
  • Acceptance. Some patients with mental health disorders have committed crimes and have an altered view of the world. Providers set aside personal thoughts and feelings, remain professional, and treat all patients equally.
  • Trustworthy. It takes time to build trustwhen working with mental health patients. Providers who are unreliable or unavailable have a hard time making progress with mental health patients, as building trust can be a prolonged process.

What Are the Roles and Duties of a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

PMHNPs work with a broad spectrum of patients; some work with children, some with adults, and some with both, or with families. Responsibilities include:

  • Taking a medical and psychiatric history
  • Interviewing patients about symptoms
  • Assess for causes of mental illnesses such as:
    • Developmental issues
    • Genetics
    • Family dysfunction
    • Neurological trauma
  • Diagnosing mental illness
  • Working with children with behavioral or emotional disorders
  • Working with patients with mental health disorders, from mild to severe
  • Assisting older patients with cognitive disorders
  • Helping patients cope with chronic disease or disability
  • Counseling and treating patients who have suffered from stress or emotional trauma, victims of abuse, and victims of crime
  • Conducting counseling sessions for individuals, groups, or families
  • Managing the care of patients using education, behavioral modification therapy, and medication
  • Track progress and collaborate with physicians or psychiatrists/psychologists to change the plan of care if needed

Working Conditions

The working conditions of psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners, as with any career, have positive and negative aspects. PMHNPs can suffer from stress as they may carry a heavy patient load and have many critical decisions and diagnoses to make. Additionally, working with patients who have mental illnesses can be emotionally draining.

Working hours can be regular business hours if working in a clinic, but acute care PMHNPs may need to work weekends, swing, or graveyard shifts, and some may need to be on call.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners may work in high-risk areas that may expose them to workplace violence, bloodborne pathogens, and chemicals. In the field of mental health, some patients may be unstable and act violently. They may cause injury if the NP is not on high alert at all times.

Not all work areas are risky, such as research and education. Regardless of the chosen work area, workplace safety training is mandatory and ongoing, and most organizations strive to protect the security of its workers.

Why Are Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners So Important?

PMHNPs are crucial in the field of mental health. The United States is in the midst of an overall physician shortage, and this includes mental health practitioners such as psychiatrists. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental illness each year, with 1 in 20 experiencing a serious mental illness annually. Psychiatric nurse practitioners can offload some of the demands and provide comprehensive care and treatment for patients suffering from mental health disorders.

Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Employment Outlook & Salary

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are valuable members of the healthcare team. As providers, teachers, leaders, and patient advocates, PMHNPs approach patient care in a holistic manner to ensure patients' mental health needs are met at the time of visit. Since PMHNPs help improve access to mental health care, they are appreciated by physicians, medical staff, and patients.

According to PayScale.com, psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners earn an average of $119,840 per year (as of 2024). This figure may vary based on additional certifications held, years of experience, city/state of employment, and more. Nevertheless, psychiatric nurses make up some of the highest-paid APRN specializations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have information specifically for psychiatric nurse practitioners. However, because of the physician shortage, aging population, and healthcare legislation, demand for nurse practitioners, in general, is expected to rise 38 percent by 2032, which is much faster than average.

Specific to the field of psychiatry, the National Council for Mental Wellbeing published an article in April 2023 outlining in detail the shortage in psychiatric care. According to the study, 83% of the country’s behavioral health workforce worry that shortages of professionals in the mental health and substance abuse fields will negatively impact society as a whole. In addition to this, 90% of behavioral health workers reported concern over the ability of those not currently receiving care to gain access to care. This goes to show that the demand for psychiatric nurse practitioners and other mental healthcare workers is only getting stronger.

Read more about NP salary and other APRN specialties.

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