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What Is a Psychiatric Nurse?

NurseJournal Staff
Updated June 29, 2023
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Psychiatric nurses play an important role in the delivery of mental health services. This guide explains how to become a psychiatric nurse, what they make, and where they work.
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A mid-adult Black psychiatric nurse is sitting in a doctor's office listening to her teenage client. The nurse is wearing a bright pink shirt, and taking notes on paper forms in a folder while paying attention to her client. The patient is a young Caucasian teenager with depression. She is leaning her head on her hand, describing her symptoms to the nurse.Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

How Long to Become

2-4 years

Job Outlook

9% increase from 2020-2030

Average Annual Salary


Psychiatric nurses work double duty in this clinical nursing specialty to provide physical and mental health care. Unlike psychiatric nurse practitioners who hold a graduate degree and are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), psychiatric nurses only need either a nursing diploma, associate, or a bachelor’s degree in nursing to enter the workforce.

Many nursing programs provide a rotation in psychiatric-mental health nursing that introduces students to the specialty. They also must obtain a registered nurse (RN) license, certification, and two years of work experience.

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What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Do?

Diploma, adn, or bsn required
Certification Optional

It takes a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatric nurses to administer mental health care. While some psychiatric nurses work in a community capacity to deliver mental health services, others help individuals one-on-one to accomplish daily tasks and improve their lives.

When psychiatric nurses earn a master’s in nursing or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), they can become APRNs who can assess, diagnose, and treat the mental health needs of a patient, which can include prescribing medication and providing psychotherapy.

Psychiatric nurses who hold a bachelor’s degree undertake these skills and responsibilities:

closeup of nurse hands on computer keyboard

JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

Key Responsibilities

  • Create treatment plans
  • Evaluate patients’ needs
  • Provide counseling services
  • Administer and manage medications

Career Traits

  • Empathy
  • Communication and assessment skills
  • Problem solving

Where Do Psychiatric Nurses Work?

Psychiatric nurses work in any setting that provides mental health treatment services which, in addition to hospitals and clinics, can include rehabilitation centers, schools, and state or federal agencies. They help individuals with mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, dementia disorders, eating disorders, and psychoses. Psychiatric nurses, as explained below, perform different duties depending on the work setting.

General and Psychiatric Hospitals

Psychiatric nurses admit or discharge patients, monitor the safety of patients being detained for psychiatric hospitalization, perform high-risk assessments, manage medications, and groom and bathe patients.

Correctional Facilities

Psychiatric nurses facilitate social and emotional needs, provide crisis intervention and treatment, and administer cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Assisted Living Facilities

Psychiatric nurses assess patients’ mental and physical health, develop treatment plans, consult with psychiatrists and other health professionals, and manage medications.

How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse?

The first step in becoming a psychiatric nurse is earning a nursing degree, followed by passing the NCLEX-RN and applying for a state nursing license. You can earn either a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). If you plan to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, the BSN gives you a broader range of options for continuing your education.

While you do not need certification to become a psychiatric nurse, certification can be an advantage in the job market or when seeking a promotion. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers psychiatric-mental health nurse certification. You can also pursue specialized certifications from organizations, such as the Addictions Nursing Certification Board or the American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation.

How Much Do Psychiatric Nurses Make?

Psychiatric nurse salaries vary based on geography and local demand, setting, certification and specialization, experience, and responsibilities. According to Payscale data from July 2022, the average annual salary for psychiatric nurses is $68,180, or $32.87 hourly.

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track psychiatric nurse salaries specifically, it reports the highest-paying states for all nurses as California, Hawaii, Oregon, the District of Columbia, and Alaska. Psychiatric nurse salaries are likely to be highest in these states, as well.

Frequently Asked Questions about Psychiatric Nurses

question-mark-circleHow are psychiatric nurses different from psychologists, psychiatrists, or therapists?

Psychiatric nurses work in bedside roles that differ from psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists who can diagnose patients. Psychiatric nurses, on the other hand, assist patients with activities of daily living, administer medication and help to manage any side effects, observe patients to evaluate their progress, and offer guidance, education, and other forms of interpersonal support to patients and their families.

question-mark-circleWhat types of conditions do psychiatric nurses treat?

Psychiatric nurses treat patients with a variety of mental health illnesses. For example, they may work in a senior living facility helping people living with dementia or in a mental health center overseeing patients recovering from eating disorders. In a psychiatric hospital, psychiatric nurses might work with people diagnosed with a mood disorder.

question-mark-circleHow do psychiatric nurses remain safe while working?

According to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA), the key to maintaining a safe healthcare environment includes awareness, attending, caring, and connecting. Psychiatric teams use risk management strategies to maintain safety. To do this, psychiatric nurses perform routine safety checks, avoid dangerous closed areas, wear appropriate clothing, maintain awareness, and keep in communication with other staff.

question-mark-circleWhat skills make for a good psychiatric nurse?

A good psychiatric nurse must demonstrate empathy and strong communication and problem-solving skills. Psychiatric nurses should maintain open communication and collaborate with other staff members to carry out intervention plans. The job also requires strong interpersonal skills to build trusting relationships with patients and the emotional stability to handle high-stress environments.

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