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How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

NurseJournal Staff
Updated April 1, 2024
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Interested in learning how to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner? Use this guide to find out about educational and credential requirements, career prospects, and salary potential.
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Mental health nurse practitioners (NPs) help patients manage various psychiatric conditions, including mood disorders, trauma, and substance use disorders.

This overview provides useful information on how to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, describing the educational, licensure, and certification requirements needed to enter this rewarding field. Prospective psychiatric NPs can also learn about career and salary possibilities.

What Is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who assess, diagnose, and treat the mental health needs of individuals and families throughout the lifespan, including psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. Depending on the state, PMHNPs either work independently or in collaboration with doctors and other healthcare specialists.

What Do Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Do?

PMHNPs’ scope of duties typically includes performing mental health assessments, diagnosing patients, and completing psychiatric evaluations. They also identify risk factors and develop care plans. PMHNPs can provide psychotherapy or crisis intervention and prescribe medication.

These NPs follow a holistic approach to healthcare, informing and educating patients and their families about various mental health issues. Common responsibilities of psychiatric NPs include diagnosing mental health issues, such as mood disorders, anxiety/trauma disorders, substance use disorders, psychotic disorders, and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Steps to Becoming a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Like all advanced nursing roles, PMHNPs must complete several steps before entering practice as a psychiatric primary care provider, psychotherapist, consultant, or educator. These nurses must hold a valid registered nurse (RN) license in the state where they intend to practice, a graduate degree, and national board certification as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.

The first step in how to become a PMHNP begins with a BSN degree. A traditional bachelor’s nursing degree program typically takes four years of full-time study. However, RNs who hold an associate degree in nursing (ADN) may shorten the time needed to complete their BSN by enrolling in an RN-to-BSN bridge program.

Students with a bachelor’s in a non-nursing field may pursue an accelerated BSN program that allows them to complete all their undergraduate nursing requirements in 18 months or less.

Learn More About Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Schooling

State nursing regulatory boards use the NCLEX to determine eligibility for getting a nursing license. To practice in their intended state, registered nurses must apply to the state board and pass the NCLEX-RN.

Most nurse practitioner programs require applicants to have at least two years of nursing experience.

PMHNPs must complete a graduate nursing degree that provides specialized training in a population focus.

The master of science in nursing (MSN), which serves as the minimum educational requirement for nurse practitioners, usually takes two years. MSN programs include coursework and nursing clinicals.

Students who want to broaden their professional options as a clinical nurse leader or pursue nurse teaching careers should consider a doctoral program, which can take up to six years to complete.

To apply for psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner board certification (PMHNP-BC), practitioners must earn their graduate degree and have 500 supervised hours working as a PMHNP. The PMHNP-BC examination, administered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), provides a valid and reliable assessment of clinical knowledge and skills.

Each state nursing board establishes its own specific psychiatric nurse practitioner requirements for licensure in addition to certification. PMHNPs can apply for licensure through their state board of nursing once all qualifications have been met.

Common workplace settings for psychiatric NP jobs include hospitals, primary care clinics, and private practice. These professionals will also find opportunities in telehealth nursing, college healthcare centers, and public health agencies.

Although specific duties depend on the workplace environment, PMHNPs provide services to different populations struggling with conditions like substance use disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, depression, and behavioral problems related to dementia.

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Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Schooling

The time needed to become a PMHNP depends on a student’s educational background, their nursing experience, and whether they enroll full or part time. Earning a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), the terminal degree for this field, may take up to 10 years from undergraduate through graduate studies.

BSN Degree

While students can get their RN license after earning either an ADN or a BSN degree, those planning to enter advanced practice nursing careers, including PMHNPs, need to complete their BSN before enrolling in a graduate nursing program.

  • Admission Requirements: BSN programs typically require high school or college transcripts, a resume, and a GPA of 2.5 or higher. Many nursing schools only admit students who have completed prerequisites in physiology, chemistry, microbiology, and anatomy.
  • Program Curriculum:Nursing school consists of coursework and clinicals. Students gain basic nursing knowledge in areas such as pharmacology, pathophysiology, and anatomy. The curriculum also addresses nursing informatics, leadership and management, and community health nursing.
  • Time to Complete: A traditional BSN degree typically takes four years of full-time study. Graduates of associate nursing programs or students who earned a non-nursing undergraduate degree may be able to transfer previously earned credits to shorten the time needed to complete the BSN.
  • Skills Learned: The BSN curriculum covers foundational nursing knowledge and critical thinking skills. The bachelor’s degree incorporates areas that an ADN program might not, such as research, cultural competence in healthcare, and nursing leadership. It also has more clinical opportunities.

MSN Degree

The MSN degree is the minimum educational requirement for all APRNs. The master’s leads to career paths in clinical specialties and nonclinical roles, while requiring less of a time commitment than a DNP.

  • Admission Requirements: Most programs require a BSN degree, a valid RN license, and, in some cases, 1-3 years of work experience. Applicants may have to submit a personal essay, recommendation letters, and graduate record examination (GRE) scores.
  • Program Curriculum: Common core courses typically include advanced psychopharmacology, health assessment, nursing ethics, and nursing leadership. While all programs require clinicals, the number of hours varies by specialty.
  • Time to Complete: The MSN takes two years or less to finish. Some schools offer bridge or accelerated programs that admit students with an ADN or with a bachelor’s degree in another field.
  • Skills Learned: MSN graduates get advanced clinical nursing and organizational skills that foster ethical decision-making and professional relationships. These programs also provide training in healthcare informatics and technologies to help nurses manage and protect patient data.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

As the demand for primary and preventive care expands, the DNP degree prepares nurses to take on many roles previously held by physicians. Graduates may pursue advanced clinical leadership roles and teaching and research positions in nursing schools.

  • Admission Requirements: Admission criteria usually include at minimum a BSN, a valid RN license, transcripts, and at least a 3.0 GPA. While not all DNP programs require GRE scores, candidates should submit a strong personal statement and three letters of recommendation. Prospective students could also complete a BSN-to-DNP bridge program, but the traditional route is obtaining an MSN first and then applying to a DNP program.
  • Program Curriculum:The DNP curriculum covers the core knowledge and skills required in advanced practice nursing specialties while also developing competencies in evidence-based practice, clinical prevention and population health, healthcare policy, and systems and organizational leadership.
  • Time to Complete: A DNP takes from 3-6 years depending on the type of program and the highest degree held. RNs who hold ADN or BSN degrees may pursue bridge or accelerated programs, while some schools only admit MSN-holders.
  • Skills Learned: The DNP graduate acquires advanced nursing evidence-based practice skills through coursework and practicumexperiences that include lab simulations, clinical rotations, and internships. DNP graduates receive training in qualitative methods, financial management, and healthcare technologies.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Credentials

All NPs must get national board certification in their chosen specialization. Specializations include adult-gerontology, acute care, family practice, among others.

PMHNPs must be certified in their chosen specialty: psychiatric mental health. While all registered nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN to receive state licensure, an equivalent national exam does not exist for NP licensure. In most states, board certification serves as a requirement for state licensure. For PMHNPs, these two credentials together demonstrate mastery of advanced nursing skills and clinical experience.

Legislation is trending toward requiring a national certification exam.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Licensing

After passing the certification exam, PMHNPs must also apply for state licensure. The majority of state nursing boards use the national board certification as one of the requirements for getting NP licensure. The NP license allows APRNs to work under the state’s regulated scope of practice.

Depending on the state, NPs may either require collaboration with a physician or they may be able to practice independently without collaboration. Generally, NPs including PMHNPs may perform physical exams, prescribe drugs, and order diagnostic tests. In most states, NP licenses must be renewed every 3-5 years.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Certification

Certifications, administered by national certifying boards such as the ANCC, help nurses to broaden their career prospects and marketability. ANCC offers several NP certifications including one in psychiatric mental health nursing. PMHNPs may renew this credential after five years by maintaining their state license and meeting continuing education for nurses and other renewal requirements.

The pediatric primary care mental health specialist credential requires professionals to hold their APRN license and complete certification in a subspecialty working with the pediatric population. Additionally, they must complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of pediatric behavioral, mental health, and developmental experience within five years. Thirty hours of continuing education is required or one graduate-level course that is worth two or more credits. They must then pass a certification exam consisting of 150 questions.

Pediatric primary care mental health providers are responsible for renewing their certification every three years.

Working as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports median annual earnings of $117,670 for all APRNs, including PMHNPs. While BLS statistics do not break down nursing salaries by specializations, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners reports a median salary of $137,000 for PMHNPs, making them one of the highest-earning NP specializations.

Where Do Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Work?

After completing a master’s or doctoral level program for psychiatry, psychiatric NPs can explore job opportunities across many settings, including private practices, corporations, and correctional facilities.

Psychiatric NPs can also consult with businesses and communities, providing a range of services. Depending on state practice laws, they can establish their own private practice. They would need to research the requirements needed to be an effective business and draw up financial plans.

Psychiatric NPs can 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 illnesses.

Hospital Psychiatry and Mental Health Departments

Among the most common workplace settings for PMHNPs, these departments rely on psychiatric NPs to assess patients and provide primary care, collaborate with physicians and other healthcare personnel to develop patient care plans, and supervise nursing assistants and RNs.

Private Psychiatric Practices

Psychiatric NPs in private practices assess, diagnose, and treat patients, develop and carry out care plans, and prescribe medications. PMHNPs in these settings work under the supervision of a physician and/or psychiatrist, or they may manage their own practice independently depending on the state.

Social Services Settings

Social services settings that employ PMHNPs include agencies, schools, prisons, public health clinics, and shelters. They include a variety of client populations.

Depending on their practice authority, these nurses may work independently or under the supervision of physicians or psychiatrists. They may provide counseling to people recovering from trauma, domestic violence, child abuse, and depression. They might offer individual or group therapy and prescribe medication.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Resources

  • American Psychiatric Nurses Association

    A professional association of psychiatric mental health nurses, APNA provides professional services and continuing education opportunities for professionals in the field.
  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners

    AANP is dedicated to providing NPs across all specialties with resources and networking opportunities.
  • International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

    Founded as the result of the combination of four independent psychiatric mental health nursing organizations, ISPN supports professionals worldwide.
  • American Nurses Association

    ANA aims to improve patient care by supporting individuals and organizations to advance the nursing profession. They also provide continuing education, certification, and professional development opportunities across the field.
  • Nurse.com Job Search

    Professionals in the psychiatric NP field can access the job search function on Nurse.com to find career opportunities specific to their nursing specialty. Professionals can input distance to locate job opportunities within a certain area.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

How many years does it take to become a PMHNP?

Navigating psychiatric nurse practitioner schooling can take six years or longer depending on a student’s educational background, whether they attend classes full time, and whether they intend to pursue a DNP degree. Most MSN programs require applicants to have completed two years of work experience, adding to the timeline.

What is the quickest way to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?

The typical educational pathway to becoming a PMHNP involves earning a BSN and an MSN in six years from start to finish. Online, bridge, direct-entry, or other accelerated programs may lead to a degree in approximately two years, depending on an applicant’s previously earned college credits or RN experience.

How hard is it to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?

Most nursing students find graduate-level coursework more difficult than a BSN curriculum and the clinical rotations more intensive. Because many students return to graduate school while maintaining full-time employment, they may face challenges managing the academic workload, fast-paced course schedules, and writing expectations.

Do psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners prescribe medicine?

NPs can prescribe medication in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. However, some states regulate practice authority, limiting the degree to which NPs can prescribe medication without physician oversight. PMHNPs may practice autonomously without supervision in 25 states. In other states, they hold reduced or restricted practice authority, requiring them to enter into collaborative agreements with a supervising doctor or follow other restrictions.

Learn More About Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

Additional Resources

Page last reviewed November 17, 2021

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