How to Become a Mental Health Nurse


Updated February 10, 2023

With a shortage of mental health professionals across the U.S., these nurses are in demand. Learn about how to become a mental health nurse.
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Mental health nurses treat patients who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, such as addictions, depression, and attention disorders.

Working as a mental health nurse is both challenging and fulfilling. These nurses express a high level of job satisfaction, helping patients in difficult situations to improve the quality of their lives. The field offers competitive salaries and growing job prospects.

Explore the steps to becoming a mental health nurse, along with career and salary information.

What Is a Mental Health Nurse?

Becoming a mental health nurse requires a registered nurse (RN) license and clinical experience. These nurses care for patients of all ages, assessing mental health conditions and disorders, identifying risk factors, and developing plans of care with physicians and psychiatrists.

Depending on the work setting, they may deliver medications, provide crisis intervention, and offer guidance and education to patients and their families. Mental health nurses work primarily in hospitals, psychiatric clinics, long-term care facilities, and schools.

Steps to Becoming a Mental Health Nurse

The path to becoming a mental health nurse begins with earning a nursing degree, passing the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN), and getting state licensure. Specific requirements for RN licensure vary by state.

After completing these steps, nurses interested in mental health careers should gain experience in mental health and psychiatric settings. Mental health nurses can broaden their career prospects by earning a specialized mental health nurse certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

  1. 1

    Earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.

    Mental health nurses must hold either an ADN or a bachelor of science in nursing. Because an increasing number of employers require a four-year baccalaureate degree, many RNs with an ADN continue their education by entering RN-to-BSN degree programs.

    Accelerated BSN programs provide a pathway to nursing careers for individuals who have completed their bachelor degrees in non-nursing fields. These programs, which typically take 1-2 years to complete, prepare graduates for RN licensure and entry-level nursing roles.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX to Receive RN Licensure

    The NCLEX-RN exam, required for state licensure, assesses the knowledge and skills needed for entry-level nursing positions. The multiple-choice exam includes questions that cover four categories: safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity.

  3. 3

    Gain experience in psychiatric or mental health nursing.

    Most ADN and BSN programs require clinical rotations. Students interested in mental health nursing should seek out clinical placements in psychiatric and mental health settings to get a feel for that kind of work.

    After earning their degree and RN license, nurses should gain work experience, pursue internships, or volunteer in facilities that provide care to patients with mental health conditions.

  4. 4

    Consider becoming a board certified psychiatric mental health nurse.

    Certifications provide nurses with the opportunity to advance their professional standing and showcase their skill sets. Some positions in mental health departments or facilities may require the psychiatric mental health nurse – board certified (PMH-BC) credential. This certification can boost career opportunities and salary prospects.

    Administered through the ANCC, the PMH-BC provides a nationally recognized assessment for the psychiatric mental health specialty. Eligibility requirements include a current RN license and two years of full-time RN experience.

Featured Online RN-to-BSN Programs

Mental Nurse Education

Earning an ADN degree offers the quickest path to becoming a mental health nurse, allowing you to enter the field in two years. Many employers prefer to hire RNs with a four-year BSN degree. A BSN may offer greater job prospects and earning potential.

ADN Degree

An associate degree in nursing provides the minimum eligibility requirements for the NCLEX-RN exam and state licensure, leading to a variety of entry-level RN careers.

Aspiring mental health nurses who want to enter the field as quickly as possible often choose to earn their ADN, although some employers prefer to hire nurses with BSN degrees. Many students begin their nursing training in an ADN program with the intention of enrolling in an RN-to-BSN program once they gain nursing experience.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; science and math prerequisites; official transcripts; SAT or ACT scores; personal essay

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Nursing fundamentals; pharmacology; nutrition; health systems; required clinical hours

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    Two years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Delivery of practical nursing care to all age groups and diverse populations; administering medication and other treatments; performing medical tests; using medical equipment

BSN Degree

A four-year BSN offers broader training than an ADN degree, with a focus on evidence-based practice, leadership, and specialized patient care. RNs with BSN degrees can expect more job opportunities than ADN-holders.

Nurses who want to pursue advanced practice nursing roles must have a BSN degree for master of science in nursing programs.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma, GED certificate, or ADN; minimum 3.0 GPA; letters of recommendation; SAT or ACT scores; personal essay

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Evidence-based nursing practice; leadership and management in nursing, nursing informatics; community health nursing; cultural awareness

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    Two years for ADN-holders; four years for high school graduates

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Fundamental nursing skills; leadership; research; public health; cultural competency in nursing; specialized training in areas such as psychiatric nursing, acute care, and critical care

Mental Health Nurse Licensure and Certification

All mental health nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN exam and receive their RN license through the state board of nursing where they intend to practice. States have different RN licensing requirements to maintain licensure.

The ANCC mental health nurse certification is a voluntary exam-based credential that validates expertise and competence based on national standards. Earning PMH-BC certification can improve career and salary prospects.

PMH-BC certification requires two years of full-time RN experience. Candidates must complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in psychiatric mental health nursing and 30 hours of continuing education within the past three years before taking the competency-based exam.

The ANCC also administers the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner certification for advanced practice nurses.

Working as a Mental Health Nurse

The need for mental health nurses has never been greater. According to a survey released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2019 less than half of adults in the U.S. with mental health conditions received treatment. Racial and ethnic minorities experience the greatest unmet mental health needs and lack of access to services.

RNs interested in working in this field should take advantage of career placement services and other resources offered by their nursing schools and professional organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Nurses Associationor the American Nurses Association.

Job openings continue to expand in many settings. Mental health nurses working in hospitals, psychiatric mental health clinics, and assisted living facilities assess patients and collaborate with other healthcare professionals to develop patient care plans.

Those employed in community health agencies, schools and universities, prisons, and other social services agencies provide care for populations of all ages dealing with issues like trauma, domestic violence, child abuse, and depression.

Salary levels for mental health nurses depend on many factors, like education, experience, work setting, and location. Payscale reports that RNs with a mental health specialty earn an average salary of $68,240 as of June 2022; average salary for all RNs was $68,670. Entry-level mental health nurses earn an average salary of $55,110, compared to $75,060 for the most experienced.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Mental Health Nurse

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

A mental health nurse can enter the field after earning an ADN, which typically takes two years, getting an RN license, and gaining nursing experience in a psychiatric mental health setting. A BSN, which requires two more years, may lead to broader employment opportunities.

Are mental health nurses in demand?

By 2025, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projects a shortage of 250,000 mental health professionals of all kinds, including mental health nurses. The growing emphasis on behavioral care, prevention of mental health disorders, and concerns over substance misuse are among the factors driving the demand.

Is it difficult to become a mental health nurse?

Mental health nurses receive the same training as other RNs. In addition, they must becomeknowledgeable about the classification of mental health disorders, the types of medications for these conditions, and the range of interventions and therapies.

They must also prepare for working in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions. They should expect to deal with emotional stress.

Do mental health nurses get paid well?

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report information for mental health nurses specifically, their salary levels correspond to those of general RNs, who earn a mean annual wage of $82,750. Mental health nurses can increase their salaries with certification or by earning a graduate degree.

Page last reviewed June 21, 2022

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