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How to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Published on: February 1, 2022

nursing student attending to patient

Do you have a strong desire to provide patient-centered, comprehensive and collaborative care? Do you have strong communication and relationship building skills? If you answered yes, you might be a good fit for a career as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).

Nurse practitioners (NP) are at the heart of the growing value-based system of healthcare. NPs are registered nurses with graduate degrees, either a master’s or a doctorate. Advanced education puts these healthcare practitioners in a unique position. They often serve as primary care clinicians or community health leaders.

Like medical doctors, nurse practitioners can specialize. They may work in family medicine, pediatrics, cancer care or as mental health professionals.

Psychiatric mental health nursing requires a diverse set of nursing, psychological and neurobiological skills. In addition to assessing, diagnosing, caring for and treating mental health and drug-use disorders, these advanced-care nurses promote mental health awareness and education. What does it take to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?

What Is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

In the United States, there are millions of people dealing with mental-health conditions, either for themselves or for someone they love. One in five adults suffers from some form of mental health problem such as depression, addiction or anxiety disorders. Of that group, 5.6% have a serious condition that requires comprehensive treatment and medication.

The need for mental health professionals is growing, as well. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that only 46% of those with a mental illness get the care they need. There are a variety of reasons individuals do not get treatment, including lack of health insurance, a reluctance to get help and a shortage of available services. PMHNPs fill the gaps to help more people get the mental health care they need.

What Do Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Do?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are NPs specially trained to work in the mental health field. They assess patients, study their medical history and perform comprehensive mental-health testing. PMHNPs also make diagnoses and create treatment plans, much like a doctor would do.

Based on their examination, they establish diagnoses of their patients' mental illnesses and then develop the most effective plan of care. These advanced-practice nurses will put their patients on a regimen of treatment and prescription medicine to enhance their mental health by employing their understanding of psychotherapy methods and psychopharmacology, as well as collaborating with doctors and other specialists.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners help and educate families and communities, as well. They can play a role in policy formulation and healthcare reform related to mental health concerns and the treatment of mental-health patients.

Illnesses and Disorders That Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Treat

Like any mental-health professional, a PMHNP follows the standards set in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) when treating patients. The most recent edition, the DSM-5, offers a wide range of diagnosable mental-health disorders, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality dysfunction
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Trauma-induced disorder

The exact mental-health condition may be a combination of these mental-health issues. PMHNPs will treat patients with mood disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD and addiction – just to name a few.

Where Do Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners Work?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners operate in a wide range of settings, including:

  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Private clinics
  • Assisted-living homes
  • Mental health institutions
  • Drug and alcohol treatment centers
  • Schools

Psychiatric nurse practitioners with advanced degrees and experience can also work as university nurse educators, psychotherapists, and psychiatric primary-care providers. They may even have their own practice in some states.

Job Outlook and Salary

The job outlook for nurse practitioners as a whole is very promising, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They report jobs in this field will rise by 45% in the next decade. Those NPs that choose to specialize in fields such as mental health will be in high demand.

An advanced care nurse who specializes in mental health can expect to make an impressive salary, as well. Payscale states the average base salary is around $112,000. Entry-level positions might pay as much as $90,000 and experienced PMHNPs could see a salary of $144,000 or higher.

What Are the Education Requirements for a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

A career path to becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner begins at an accredited nursing school. Since becoming a PMHNP requires a graduate degree, you will need to earn at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to get into a graduate program. You could start with a two-year degree and use a bridge program to get your BSN.

To become a registered nurse (RN), you must first complete and pass the NCLEX-RN, the official RN licensure examination. Following that, you can apply for state RN licensure.

Next, you need to apply to an accredited psychiatric nurse practitioner program to get a master’s or doctorate. Certification will also require you to complete 500 clinical hours in a faculty-supervised program related to your role as a PMHNP. This might be in a hospital, private clinic or mental health facility.

Are Any Certifications or Credentials Needed?

After getting your advanced degree and clinical hours, you can apply to take the psychiatric mental-health nurse practitioner exam administered by the American Nursing Credentialing Center (ANCC). You must also apply for PMHNP licensure in the state where you intend to practice.

Keep in mind that the laws for nurse practitioners vary from state to state. There are variations in practicing rules, regulations and credentials. You’ll want to research the laws in your area to ensure you meet all the qualifications for licensure.

What Are the Continuing Education Requirements for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners?

After passing the exam and receiving your PMHNP certification, you must renew it every five years through the ANCC board as well as your individual state board. A psychiatric nurse practitioner must recertify by combining professional development with either 1,000 practice hours or retaking the certification exam.

You must also have a current, valid RN license and complete 75 hours of continuing education to maintain it.

Important Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Skills

A psychiatric nurse practitioner is first and foremost a nurse, and needs to want to care for and help others. In addition, a PMHNP must have good communication skills. Effective communication with patients is essential for this role.

In addition to communicating with patients, PMHNPs frequently act as advocates, particularly for patients with mental health issues. Therefore, it is equally important for them to be able to communicate effectively with other healthcare professionals in order to ensure that the patient receives the proper standard of care.

In some cases, PMHNPs may work with patients who are unable to communicate their needs effectively. It is critical for the NP to be compassionate, patient and gentle with them as they try to figure out what is wrong and what the best course of action may be to help the patient feel like themselves again.

Because NPs have the added obligation and power to provide treatment and prescribe medicine, paying attention to detail is extremely important. There is no room for errors or mistakes when it comes to patient health and wellness.

Attention to detail may be even more crucial in the field of mental health and psychiatric care because many diseases are not clear cut. In contrast to physical care, where it is often evident what is wrong and what is required to treat the patient, mental health nurse practitioners may need to be even more vigilant of nuance to make a proper diagnosis.

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are not just there to assist patients suffering from moderate depression and anxiety. Frequently, they will be treating individuals who have major psychiatric illnesses and mental health issues that can cause extremely dramatic symptoms. Beyond the more typical symptoms that a significant percentage of the population may suffer at some point in their life, nurse practitioners must be open-minded and interested in being an advocate for mental health.

Steps to Becoming a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

  1. Attend an accredited nursing school. There is some flexibility when it comes to degrees. Nurses can start their career paths by getting an associate degree, allowing them the ability to work while they continue their education. That experience can pay off as you apply to an advanced nursing program. The key is to continue to build on your education. There are programs that allow you to get a bachelor’s degree while you work. Once you get your BSN, you will have the credentials to apply for a psychiatric nurse practitioners’ program.
  2. Take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. This exam allows you to get your RN licensure and to work as a registered nurse. Once you pass the exam, you will need to file for RN licensure in your state.
  3. Earn a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner degree. This requires you to enroll in a specialized graduate program and work towards either a master’s or doctorate degree.
  4. Complete the required number of clinical experience hours. Currently, that number is 500 hours to sit for the certification exam. Some states may require more clinical hours for licensure, though.
  5. Become a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner. Once you graduate with an advanced nursing degree, you can sit for the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner exam administered by the American Nursing Credentialing Center (ANCC). This exam is a requirement to get licensure and work as a PMHNP.

After completing these five steps, you’ll apply for licensure with your state. It is better to do your research about the requirements for a license when you are first considering this career path. That way you have all the prerequisites done before you apply for licensure. Since each state has different rules, you’ll need to know what is required in your state.

Also, remember that you must maintain a license as a registered nurse, as well. That may have different requirements from state to state.

To be board certified and receive the PMHNP-BC credential, you must have a current and active RN license, a graduate degree from an accredited adult psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner program, 500 supervised clinical hours of experience, proof of completion of the required graduate coursework and you must pass the board-certification examination.

The entire process from start to finish will likely take at least six years. It may take longer depending on whether you attend classes full time and how long you spend studying for the various certification exams. It may also take time for your state to approve your license.

As a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, you will have the opportunity to deal with patients from diverse backgrounds. In this job, you may also work in hospitals, psychiatric units, residential programs, outpatient clinics, doctor's offices, jails and other settings. While psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners may not have to deal with the same fast-paced situations every day as nurses in emergency rooms and urgent care facilities, no two days are ever the same. It is a fantastic career for anyone who enjoys interacting with people and learning what makes them tick.

If a career as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner sounds perfect for you, then now is the time to consider your options. Husson University offers an accredited program for PMHNPs that will allow you to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) online. Visit the website today to find out more.

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