How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Ayana Dunn, RN
Updated May 3, 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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Psychiatric nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are advanced practice nurses who treat mental health conditions. They can see patients more independently than registered nurses and work with more specialized populations. Learn about PMHNP roles, credentials, education timelines, and other key information about becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner in this guide.

How Long to Become

At least 6 years

Degree Required


Required Certification

Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC™)

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Steps to Becoming a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

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

Factors like part-time enrollment or specific program requirements may affect your path, but all PMHNPs must achieve certain steps, which take at least six years.

  1. 1

    Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree

    Becoming a PMHNP begins with earning a BSN degree. A traditional bachelor’s nursing degree program typically takes four years of full-time study. However, RNs with associate degrees in nursing (ADNs) may shorten the time to complete their BSNs by enrolling in RN-to-BSN bridge programs.

    Students with bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing fields may pursue accelerated BSN programs to complete their undergraduate nursing requirements in 18 months or less.

  2. 2

    Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to Receive RN Licensure

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

  3. 3

    Gain Experience as an RN

    Most nurse practitioner programs require an applicant to have at least two years of nursing experience. Clinical experience is key to knowing if a specialty is right for you, and time spent working as a psychiatric nurse is ideal.

    You can gain experience in several settings:

    • Inpatient medical and psychiatric hospitals
    • Emergency departments
    • Mental health urgent care and other outpatient settings
    • Correctional facilities
    • Crisis stabilization units

    With prior experience, you can apply what you learn in class to real-world scenarios and practice with greater confidence.

  4. 4

    Enroll in a Nursing Graduate Program

    A PMHNP must complete a graduate nursing degree that provides specialized training in caring for patients with mental health conditions.

    The master of science in nursing (MSN) — the minimum educational requirement for nurse practitioners — usually requires two years of full-time study. MSN programs include didactic coursework and nursing clinicals.

    Students looking to broaden their professional options as clinical nurse leaders or nurse educators may consider doctoral programs, which can take up to six years to complete.

  5. 5

    Pursue Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certification and Nurse Practitioner Licensure

    To apply for psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner board certification (PMHNP-BC), a candidate must earn a 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 specific psychiatric nurse practitioner requirements for licensure and certification. Most states require:

    • PMHNP board certification
    • MSN or higher from an accredited university
    • An active, unencumbered RN license in the state
    • An application and application fee
    • A clean background check

    PMHNPs can apply for licensure through their state nursing boards after meeting all qualifications.

  6. 6

    Find Employment

    Start your search by identifying your ideal patient population. Hone your interview skills, and find online resources with resume tips. Consider hiring a professional for resume edits and advice. When you’re ready, search for openings on job boards and employer career pages.

    Use your network to learn about opportunities that haven’t appeared online yet. You can join professional nurse practitioner associations and attend their events to build your network and find more job opportunities. Professional organizations for PMHNPs include the National Association of Psychiatry Mental Health NPs, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), and state chapters of AANP.

What Is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

PMHNPs are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who assess, diagnose, and treat the mental health needs of individuals and families across the lifespan.

Some of the mental health conditions PMHNPs diagnose and treat include mood disorders, anxiety/trauma disorders, substance use disorders, psychotic disorders, and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Depending on the state, PMHNPs can work independently and/or collaborate with medical doctors. Their duties include:

  • Performing mental health assessments and psychiatric evaluations
  • Diagnosing patients
  • Providing psychotherapy or crisis intervention
  • Identifying risk factors
  • Developing care plans
  • Prescribing medication

NPs follow a holistic approach to healthcare. They educate patients and their families about various mental health issues and ensure patients have the resources they need to follow through with treatment plans.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Schooling

The time needed to become a PMHNP depends on your educational background and nursing experience. Earning a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), the terminal degree for this field, takes at least 10 years from undergraduate through doctoral studies. If you study part-time or spend more than two years gaining nursing experience, earning your DNP will take even longer.

Researching your educational options is an important step in learning to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Choose your program with care because it provides the foundation for your clinical practice. Furthermore, your choice affects your finances, mental health, and daily life.

Learn about how each school can accommodate your unique needs. If you choose in-person classes, consider a campus tour. Planning and setting realistic expectations can increase your chances of success.

Expect to complete different phases of schooling and pass corresponding certification exams to become licensed. Your specific APRN goals determine the choice to earn your doctorate. Below, we overview each degree.

BSN Degree

Nursing students and nurses who plan to enter advanced practice nursing careers, including PMHNPs, typically must complete BSNs before enrolling in graduate nursing programs.

  • Admission Requirements: BSNs generally require each candidate to submit high school or college transcripts demonstrating a 2.5 GPA, along with other materials, like a resume. Many nursing programs only admit students who have completed prerequisites in physiology, statistics, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology.
  • Program Curriculum: Nursing students take nursing courses and practice the skills they learn in clinicals. Students gain basic nursing knowledge in areas like pharmacology, pathophysiology, and anatomy. Nursing school coursework also addresses nursing informatics, leadership and management, and community health nursing.
  • Time to Complete: A traditional BSN typically takes four years of full-time study. Graduates of associate nursing programs or students who earned non-nursing undergraduate degrees may be able to transfer previously earned credits to shorten their degree timelines.
  • 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. Bachelor’s-level programs also offer more clinical opportunities.

MSN Degree

To earn your master’s, you must first earn a BSN and pass the NCLEX-RN. Ideally, you’ve gained experience in psychiatric nursing before starting your MSN. Most full-time MSN programs take 1-2 years. You can earn your nurse practitioner accreditation after passing the national exam.

The MSN degree is the minimum educational requirement for all NPs. The master’s leads to career paths in NP specialties, such as psychiatric mental health NPs and non-clinical roles. Yet, it requires less of a time commitment than a DNP.

  • Admission Requirements: Most programs require a BSN degree with a 3.0 GPA, a valid RN license, and 2-3 years of work experience. An applicant may also have to submit a personal essay, recommendation letters, official undergraduate transcripts, and GRE scores.
  • Program Curriculum: Common core courses typically include advanced health assessment, advanced pathophysiology, and advanced specialty courses across the lifespan. While all programs require clinicals, the number of hours varies by specialty.
  • Time to Complete: MSNs take 2-3 years. Some students qualify for bridge or accelerated programs with different timelines and admission requirements.
  • Skills Learned: PMHNP programs can hone your current knowledge and broaden your scope of practice. New skills include prescriptions, mental health assessments, and patient diagnoses.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

Earning a DNP can provide access to new career opportunities and greater autonomy. It’s especially helpful if you want to transition to a non-clinical role, such as a leadership position. Typical requirements for DNP programs include prerequisite credits, transcripts, a minimum 3.0 GPA, GRE results, and an unencumbered RN license.

Some schools don’t require GRE results. BSN-to-DNP programs may require fewer materials, as well.

  • Program Curriculum: DNP classes cover advanced nursing evidence-based practice skills through coursework and practicum experiences that include lab simulations, clinical rotations, and internships. DNP programs take an average of 3-4 years for full-time students. Part-time students and nurses who need breaks between schooling may take longer. Accelerated programs take less time.
  • Skills Learned: DNP graduates can acquire the core knowledge and skills required in advanced practice nursing specialties and strengthen evidence-based practice, clinical prevention, and healthcare policy skills. They receive training in qualitative methods, financial management, and healthcare technologies.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Credentials

PMHNPs must be certified in their chosen specialty of 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, the board certification exam serves as a requirement for state licensure. All states require PMHNPs to earn board certification to renew their license.

For PMHNPs, licensure and board certification demonstrate mastery of advanced nursing skills and clinical experience.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Licensing

After passing the certification exam, PMHNPs must apply for state licensure. Every state nursing board, except California and New York, requires national board certification for NP licensure. The NP license allows APRNs to work under their state’s NP scope of practice.

PMHNPs also need to apply for a furnishing license to prescribe most psychotropics that are not scheduled medication. PMHNPs prescribe these drugs prescribed to affect a patient’s mental state. They’ll need a license from the Drug Enforcement Agency to prescribe controlled substances. The requirements and titles for these licenses that allow PMHNPs to prescribe medication vary by state.

Depending on the state, NPs may require collaboration with a physician or practice independently without collaboration. Some states require NPs to collaborate with physicians for prescriptive privileges but not for standard duties, such as ordering diagnostic testing, conducting psychiatric evaluations and assessments, performing physical exams, or creating care plans. NP licenses must be renewed every 1-5 years, depending on your state.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Certification

Certifications help nurses broaden their career prospects and marketability. ANCC offers several NP certifications, including for 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 (PMHS) credential requires PMHNPs to possess NP licensure, hold PMHNP board certification, and pass an exam. Additionally, they must complete at least 2,000 hours of pediatric behavioral, mental health, and developmental experience within five years. Each candidate must have thirty hours of continuing education or one graduate-level course worth two or more credits.

Eligible PMHNPs must then take the 150-question PMHS certification exam. Pediatric primary care mental health providers must renew their PMHS certification every three years.

Working as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary
Source: AANP

Projected Job Growth
45% for all NPs
Source: BLS

Projected New Job Openings
118,600 for all NPs
Source: BLS

Your licensure state determines your level of autonomy. In some states, you must work with a physician, while others grant NPs full practice authority. Your tasks may include:

  • Prescribing medications
  • Performing psychiatric assessments and evaluations
  • Referring patients to appropriate specialty providers, if needed
  • Collaborating with the healthcare team
  • Addressing psychiatric emergencies

The BLS projects employment for all NPs will grow by 45% from 2022-2032. Experts attribute the particularly high demand for PMHNPs to the shortage of affordable psychiatrists and the increase in mental health conditions following the COVID-19 pandemic.

AANP reports a median salary of $137,000 for PMHNPs, placing them among the highest-earning NP specializations.

Where Do Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Work?

Psychiatric mental health NPs can focus their careers in many settings to evaluate patients, diagnose conditions, implement treatment plans, and order diagnostic tests. These settings include NP private practices, emergency departments, mental health urgent care clinics, addiction clinics, and correctional facilities.

Psychiatric NPs can also consult with businesses and communities to provide mental health services. Depending on state practice laws, they may be able to establish their own private practice.

Hospital Psychiatry and Mental Health Departments

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

Private Psychiatric Practices

Psychiatric NPs in private practice assess, diagnose, and treat patients with mental health conditions. They provide psychotherapy, develop and carry out care plans, and prescribe medications. PMHNPs in these settings work under psychiatrist supervision. PMHNPs may manage their own practices independently, depending on the state.

Addiction Clinics

Substance use disorders often co-occur with mental health conditions. PMHNPs create medication regimens through treatment programs to support patients’ psychiatric needs, oversee the detox process, and address psychiatric emergencies. A task unique to this setting is facilitating detox. PMHNPs prescribe medications to increase comfort and safety while monitoring withdrawal symptoms.

Social Services Settings

Social services settings that employ PMHNPs include schools, prisons, public health clinics, and shelters. These settings serve many populations, such as children, families, and incarcerated individuals. Depending on their practice authority, these nurses may work independently or under the supervision of 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.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Completing psychiatric nurse practitioner schooling can take six years or longer depending on a student’s educational background, full-time vs. part-time enrollment, and whether they intend to pursue a DNP degree. Most MSN programs require an applicant to have completed two years of work experience, potentially adding to the timeline.

Page last reviewed on April 11, 2024

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