Nurse practitioners (NPs) take on an important role in the healthcare industry, often filling gaps in settings without enough physicians or healthcare resources.
Nurse practitioners are registered nurses (RNs) who have completed additional graduate-level education and are trained to provide a broad range of primary care services. Unlike RNs, NPs can independently assess and diagnose patients, provide treatment, and, in many states, prescribe medication.
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are assuming greater clinical responsibilities in the treatment of individuals with mental illness as the shortage of psychiatrists and their maldistribution continues to persist in the United States. Only about 1.8% of nurse practitioners specialize in psychiatric mental health, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).
This guide introduces the profession, exploring how to become a PMHNP and answering the question: what does a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner do?
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Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?
Individuals pursue many different educational routes on this career path. The shortest route involves earning a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) and master of science in nursing (MSN), which usually takes around six years in total. Many nurses work while they study, taking even longer to earn PMHNP licensure. Some nurses decide to pursue a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), which may add several more years to their education.
Can a psychiatric nurse practitioner diagnose mental illness?
Yes. PMHNPs can diagnose mental illnesses like anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse disorders, dementia, and bipolar disorder.
How much does a psychiatric NP make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), advanced practice nurses make a median salary of about $115,800. However, this figure takes into account the salaries of all types of nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives. PayScale data narrows down salary figures to the psychiatric nurse practitioner field, and shows that PMHNPs make an average annual salary of about $108,500. You can find more information about psychiatric nurse practitioners’ salaries with this resource.
What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner?
In many ways, psychiatrists’ and PMHNPs’ job duties are similar. However, some states require NPs to enter into supervisory or collaborative agreements with physicians or psychiatrists.
What Does a Psychiatric NP Do?
PMHNPs treat patients who are dealing with mental health issues. These could include managing stress at work or school, social anxiety, trauma, severe depression, substance abuse and addiction issues, and bipolar disorders.
PMHNPs can provide a variety of services, including diagnosing illnesses, managing medication, ordering bloodwork to monitor therapeutic levels of medications and the associated risks with taking psychotropics, coordinating appropriate levels of care, and referring patients to psychotherapy. Although psych NPs can meet with patients independently, some states require these professionals to go into collaborative or supervisory agreements with psychiatrists, who must approve of any prescribed medication.
Psychiatric NPs work in many different settings, including outpatient clinics, inpatient hospitalization, community health centers, correctional facilities, and schools. Many NPs work in rural areas, or underserved parts of the country that lack healthcare resources.
Requirements to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
Mental health nurse practitioners need years of schooling before they can become licensed and legally provide psychiatric services.
First, they must earn an undergraduate degree. Many aspiring NPs jump straight into a four-year BSN, but some earn a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) instead. Several schools offer ADN-to-MSN or RN-to-MSN programs which allow registered nurses — usually with professional experience — to earn an MSN on an accelerated timeline.
At minimum, PMHNPs need an MSN with a psychiatric mental health specialization. These programs typically last two years, with part-time students requiring more time to graduate.
The AACN, however, recommends that aspiring nurse practitioners earn a DNP. Although they often take a year or two longer to complete, a DNP strategically prepares nurses in advanced practice and leadership roles to enhance health outcomes across all care settings and optimize quality in healthcare delivery.
Licensure and Certifications
NPs need to be board certified/credentialed in order to practice. While specific licensing requirements vary by state, most NP candidates need RN licensure, an accredited graduate degree in nursing, and a certain number of supervised clinical hours determined by the graduate or doctorate program. Additionally, all states require nurse practitioners to be credentialed nationally in their specialty through the ANCC or AANP organization.
The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC). This credential lasts five years and requires an RN license; a master’s, postgraduate, or doctoral degree; clinical training in two psychotherapeutic treatment modalities; and completion of graduate-level courses in advanced physiology/pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and advanced pharmacology.
Career and Salary Outlook for Nurse Practitioners
On average, psychiatric nurse practitioners enjoy six-figure salaries. BLS data shows that the median salary for advanced practice nurses — including all nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives — reached $115,800 in 2019. For psychiatric NPs in particular, the average salary approaches $108,500.
The job outlook for nurse practitioners is one of the nation’s best, according to the BLS. In fact, projections show that the advanced practice nursing profession could grow by 45% from 2019-2029.
This growth can be attributed to a greater overall demand for healthcare. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are assuming greater clinical responsibilities in the treatment of individuals with mental illness as the shortage of psychiatrists and their maldistribution continues to persist in the United States. Healthcare facilities may also utilize more team-based approaches to medical care, in which NPs could play important roles.
Karen Luu, MSN, PMHNP-BC
Karen Luu is a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. Luu holds a master of science degree in nursing from Azusa Pacific University as well as an undergraduate degree in public health science. She has seven years of nursing experience, which includes working at the Level II Trauma Center, community hospitals, mental health urgent care, and private practice. Luu is currently working at a private practice which specializes in bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. She emphasizes the importance of incorporating the recovery-based model in her everyday practice.