Psychiatric Nurse Career Overview icon

Psychiatric Nurse Career Overview

| NurseJournal Staff

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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.

What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Do?

ADN or BSN required
certification required


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:

Primary Responsibilities

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

Skills Learned

  • Empathy
  • Communication and assessment skills
  • Problem solving

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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 such as depression and bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders such as 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 patients being detained for psychiatric hospitalization for safety, 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 patient's mental and physical health, develop treatment plans, consult with psychiatrists and other health professionals, and manage medications.

The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse?

Working long hours as a psychiatric nurse requires patience, endurance, and attentiveness. Psychiatric nurses regularly navigate volatile situations. Patients with a psychosis or dementia can be physically or verbally abusive. Furthermore, the mental health field seems undervalued compared to other nursing sectors. That said, the job offers many rewards. Psychiatric nursing, despite all of its challenges, provides an opportunity to join a team of devoted professionals who strive to better patients' lives for the long term. The job offers many pros and cons as the list below details.

Advantages to Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse


Job satisfaction Better pay Career security and growth Variety of positions and settings

Disadvantages to Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse


High burnout Not as prestigious Understaffed Potentially high-risk setting

How To Become a Psychiatric Nurse

The steps below outline the process to becoming a psychiatric nurse. They include education, licensure, and certification.

Graduate with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).
After four years of study, you can earn a bachelor’s in nursing degree. This means you have completed at least 120 credits, which will include clinical rotations in medical-surgical, critical care, women’s health, pediatrics, community health, and psychiatry.
Pass the NCLEX-RN exam to receive RN licensure.
About a month after graduating with a bachelor’s in nursing degree, you can take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This five-hour computerized test adapts to your answers. Test-takers answer between 74-145 questions depending on how they perform. This includes 15 pre-test questions that do not influence the score.
Complete the required nursing experience.
After receiving your RN license, you are encouraged to become board certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. To take the test, you need at least two years of RN experience, 2,000 hours of clinical practice in a mental health setting in the last three years, and 30 continuing education hours.
Apply for your psychiatric-mental health nursing certification (PMH-BC).
Once you have completed the PMH-BC eligibility requirements, you can apply for the exam. By passing the PMH-BC exam, you demonstrate that you have the basic skills and knowledge to work as a psychiatric nurse. Nurses can take the three-hour test any time in the year. The 150-question exam includes 25 pretest questions. Test-takers pay $220-$395 depending on their membership status.
Advance your career with a graduate degree.
While not mandatory, you can expand your career options and salary by earning a master’s in nursing or DNP. Within 1-2 years, more for the doctoral program, you can earn a degree and become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

How Much Do Psychiatric Nurses Make?

Psychiatric nurses can make higher wages when compared to other nursing specialties. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that RNs working in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals make an annual mean wage of $74,610, or $35.90 an hour. Data from PayScale show salaries increase with experience. Entry-level psychiatric nurses who have worked less than one year make about $29.10 an hour, whereas those with 5-9 years of experience earn $32.00 an hour.

While the data refers to RNs in general, an expected job growth rate of 7% should create 221,900 jobs from 2019-2029, according to the BLS.

Find State-Specific Salary Data Here

Frequently Asked Questions


How 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.

What 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.

How 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.

What 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 interventions plans. The job also requires strong interpersonal skills to build trusting relationships with patients and the emotional stability to handle high-stress environments.

Resources for Psychiatric Nurses

  • APNA, founded in 1986, boasts more than 11,000 members who work in psychiatric mental health nursing. Psychiatric nurses and psychiatric nurse practitioners join this professional organization to connect with other members and gain access to the 230 online continuing education ebooks and sessions. Job postings, grants, and scholarship opportunities also offer an additional incentive to join APNA.
  • Since its inaugural conference in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1999, ISPN has remained committed to promoting mental health care across the globe. Members can attend the annual conference and the annual business meeting. They also receive access to international networking services and an online membership directory. Additionally, ISPN offers its members free quarterly webinars.

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Reviewed by:

Karen Luu is a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. Luu holds an MSN from Azusa Pacific University as well as an undergraduate degree in public health science. She currently works at a private practice which specializes in bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Luu is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.


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