How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

How to Get Into Psychiatric Nursing

With over 50 million Americans currently experiencing a mental illness, the need for trained mental health professionals is more critical than ever before. People with mental health issues rely on mental health professionals, like psychiatric nurses, to manage complex and emotional needs.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners, also known as Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNPs), provide mental health services for individuals and communities. They work with children, teens, and adults of all ages and are skilled in treating various psychiatric conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, trauma, and substance abuse.

PMHNPs must have good communication and relationship skills, flexibility, openness toward diverse lifestyles, and a strong foundation in the primary and behavioral sciences.

So, how do you get into psychiatric nursing and enter a fulfilling career full of various new challenges? First, let’s discuss the steps you should take to break into the evolving and in-demand field of psychiatric nursing.

Step 1: Complete a Nursing Program

First and foremost, you must complete an entry-level nursing program and earn a bachelor’s in Nursing (BSN) to become a psychiatric nurse. A traditional bachelor’s nursing degree program typically takes four years of full-time study.

However, if you are already an RN with an associate degree in nursing (ADN), you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program and complete it part-time in as little as 12 months.

A BSN is the prerequisite to a master’s degree, which is required to become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner.

Most entry-level nursing programs will offer a clinical rotation in psych nursing, allowing you to see what it’s like to work in the field of psychiatric nursing before launching a career. Candidates can also volunteer in an agency that serves people with mental health issues.

Step 2: Take and Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)

Upon graduation from a nursing program, you must take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to practice in your intended state. The NCLEX is a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses in the United States and Canada.

State nursing regulatory boards use the NCLEX to determine eligibility for getting a nursing license. After passing the exam, you can apply to become a registered nurse (RN).

Step 3: Gain Experience as a Nurse

While you may be eager to enroll in a nursing graduate program to become a psychiatric nurse as soon as possible, you should consider gaining invaluable experience as an RN first. Then, explore other areas of nursing to determine if your heart is in mental health and psychiatric nursing.

Many graduate programs require applicants to have at least two years of nursing experience.

Step 4: Complete a Graduate PMHNP Program

To expand the scope of practice and earning potential as a nurse, consider becoming a PMHNP by enrolling in a nursing graduate program. As suggested above, advanced practice psychiatric nurses have a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing.

Aspiring Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners should specifically complete a graduate degree program in the mental health specialization. For example, a Master of Science in Nursing program, with a focus on psychiatric nursing and mental health, is an ideal pathway for breaking into this line of work. PMHNP-APRN programs, such as the one at Goodwin University, are flexible for registered nurses and can often be completed online.

When looking at graduate schools, research to find schools accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), or the National League for Nursing (NLN).

Step 5: Earn Your Certification in Psychiatric Nursing

While becoming certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) is not required, the certification enhances your position, highlights your dedication, and recommends you highly to future employers.

To apply for Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner board certification (PMHNP-BC), practitioners must earn their graduate degree, as described above.

Additionally, practitioners need to have the following:

  • A current and active RN license in a state or territory of the United States or hold a professional legally recognized equivalent in another country.
  • Practice as a full-time RN for a minimum of two years.
  • A minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in psychiatric-mental health nursing within the last three years.
  • Completed 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric-mental health nursing within the last three years.

The ANCC certification is valid for five years after meeting these requirements and obtaining the psychiatric nursing certification. PMHNPs may renew this credential after five years by maintaining their state license and meeting continuing education for nurses and other renewal requirements.

Step 6: Find Employment as a PMHNP

PMHNPs often find jobs in hospitals, primary care clinics, private practices, rehabilitation facilities, and opportunities in telehealth nursing, college healthcare centers, and public health agencies.

While specific work duties vary and depend on the workplace environment, PMHNPs provide services to populations struggling with substance use disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, depression, and behavioral problems related to dementia, to name a few.

Psychiatric NPs can also consult with businesses and communities and focus their careers anywhere that allows them to evaluate patients, diagnose, implement treatment plans, and order diagnostic testing to monitor treatment for patients dealing with mental illness.

PMHNPs find work in the following settings:

  • Assisted living facilities
  • Behavioral care companies
  • Community mental health centers
  • Hospitals such as medical centers and VA hospitals
  • Long-term care centers
  • Military clinics or hospitals
  • Primary care offices
  • Private practices
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Specialty psychiatric or substance abuse hospitals
  • State and federal facilities such as prisons and other agencies, including the court system for forensic and other psych nurses
  • Universities and colleges

Career Outlook as a PMHNP

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that 1 in 5 people currently live with a mental illness. Consequently, 1 in 20 people live with a severe mental illness.

Thus, there will always be a need for psychiatric nurses, and a high earning potential will be available for this in-demand field.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual earning of $117,670 for all Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN), including PMHNPs.

And though the BLS does not break down nursing salaries by specializations, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners reports a median salary of $137,000 per year for PMHNPs, making them one of the highest-earning nurse practitioner specializations.

If you are passionate about mental health and helping others as a nurse, consider becoming a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. Get started on your journey through our online PMHNP program to accelerate your career and reach your goal of becoming an advanced practice registered nurse! Contact us if you have any questions or need more information.