Mental Health Nurse Career Overview

Updated August 23, 2022 · 3 Min Read

Reviewed by Shrilekha Deshaies MSN, CCRN, RN
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Mental health nurses are in demand and perform a vital service. Learn what they do, how to become one, and how much mental health nurses make.

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Mental Health Nurse Career Overview
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How Long to Become

2-4 years

Degree Requirements

RN Diploma, ADN, or BSN

Average Annual Salary

$68,180


Mental health nurses provide assessment and treatment for people with mental health conditions. Obtaining these positions requires experience and education.

This guide covers the steps to becoming a mental health nurse, along with certification options and answers to questions like, "what is a mental health nurse?", "what does a mental health nurse do?", and "how much does a mental health nurse make?"

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What Does a Mental Health Nurse Do?

diploman, adn, bsn required
Certification Optional

Mental health nurses care for patients experiencing mental or behavioral health conditions. They work in hospitals, independent practices, clinics, and government settings such as military bases and jails.

Their work includes assessing patients, assisting with treatment plans, maintaining patient health records, and communicating with and educating patients and their loved ones.

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JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

Key Responsibilities

  • Monitor vital signs and patient status
  • Perform mental health tests and screenings
  • Administer treatment under medical guidance from a physician, psychoiatrist, or other authorized prescriber
  • Educate patients and loved ones

Career Traits

  • Resilient and empathetic
  • Unbiased
  • Interpersonal
  • Observational

Where Do Mental Health Nurses Work?

Mental health nurses work in hospitals and health systems, clinics, inpatient treatment centers, independent psychiatric and psychological practices, and government settings such as correctional facilities and military bases. They may also work in disaster relief or similar humanitarian care settings.

Inpatient mental health settings

Administer treatments and medications, lead or assist in group discussions or sessions, conduct tests and assessments under medical supervision

Hospitals

Conduct certain mental health assessments, administer treatments and medications, update medical records, educate patients and loved ones on conditions and treatments

Substance use treatment settings

Conduct patient assessments under medical supervision, lead or assist in group discussions or settings, monitor patient conditions, educate patients and loved ones, conduct follow-up interviews

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse?

The first step in becoming a mental health nurse is earning a registered nurse (RN) license. You must earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) to become eligible to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

Earning an ADN takes two years. Earning a BSN takes four years, as it covers more materials in greater depth. If you plan to earn a master's degree and become a nurse practitioner, the BSN is more valuable.

However, there are RN-to-MSN programs if a two-year degree is the best choice for you. After graduating, you must pass the NCLEX-RN examination and apply for a state license.

As with other nursing jobs, entry-level mental health nurses receive extensive on-the-job training from their employers. Once they have gained experience, many mental health nurses pursue certifications, such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC).

While certification is not a legal requirement to work as a mental health nurse the way that an RN license is, it demonstrates your knowledge and experience. Many employers require or strongly prefer certifications for higher-level mental health nurse positions.

If you want even more growth potential in mental health nursing, explore becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Psychiatric nurse practitioners are licensed to diagnose and prescribe treatments, which means more autonomy and likely a higher salary.

How Much Do Mental Health Nurses Make?

Mental health nurse salaries range from $51,000 - $95,000 annually, with an average annual salary of $68,000 and average hourly salary of $32.87, according to August 2022 Payscale data.

Like other nursing jobs, factors affecting mental health nurse salaries include local demand and cost of living, experience and education, and responsibilities, including supervisory responsibilities.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mental Health Nurses


How long does it take to become a mental health nurse?

It takes at least two years to become a mental health nurse. You must earn a two-year ADN and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to earn an RN license. A BSN degree takes four years, but is often more valuable for career advancement. Many nurses obtain one to two years of clinical experience before pursuing a role in mental health nursing.

Who do mental health nurses work with?

Mental health nurses work with psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and other nurses. They may also work with social workers, clergy, and other partners who contribute to healthcare but are not healthcare workers themselves.

What kind of conditions do mental health nurses care for?

Mental health nurses care for patients with mental or behavioral conditions such as depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may work with pediatric, adult, or gerontological patients.

Is certification required for mental health nurses?

Certification is not legally required for mental health nurses the way that a nursing license is, but many employers require or strongly prefer it, especially for higher-level or supervisory positions.


Page Last Reviewed: August 21, 2022


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