What Do Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurses Do?

psych-nursingNursing is without a doubt one of the fastest-growing careers in the United States. One of the advantages of working in the booming nursing field is that there are so many directions in which you can go. The specialties in this field are almost endless.

One nursing specialty that is seeing growing demand for workers is psychology and mental health. While many people with mental health issues seek the treatment of a psychologist or psychiatrist, there are many times when a nurse plays a vital role in the psychiatric care process.

There are two common types of nurses in this specialty – psychiatric nurses and mental health nurses. Let’s learn more about what each specialist does.

Psychiatric Nurse

According to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, psychiatric nurses are experts in crisis intervention, mental health, medications and therapies to assist patients in mastering mental illnesses. They work closely with them so that they can live as productive and fulfilling lives as possible.

How They Work

A psychiatric nurse starts her work with a patient by interviewing her and assessing the new patient to learn her symptoms, history, illnesses and daily living habits. A psychiatric nurse will usually work with a person who has:

  • Anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks and various phobias

  • Mood disorders, including bipolar disorder and depression

  • Substance abuse, such as drugs and alcohol

  • Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia

A psychiatric nurse works closely with her treatment team to develop an individualized plan to give the patient the total care and attention they need to live a productive life. The nurse will provide individual counseling to the patient as well as the family so that they have a better understanding of the illness. The nurse may also help the patient to dress, groom and to take their medications properly.

Where They Work

Psychiatric nurses work in many environments, the most common being:

  • Regular hospitals

  • Psychiatric hospitals

  • Home health care organizations

  • Prisons and jails

  • Outpatient mental health organizations

  • Schools that serve people with emotional and mental problems

If you work in a regular hospital, you most likely will work a regular 12 hour shift, like most nurses do. However, you also may work in an inpatient facility, where the person stays 24 hours per day. In that case, nurses will provide 24/7 care and treatment for the patient.

Psychiatric nurses may work more in inpatient centers and correctional facilities more than mental health nurses, which are detailed below.

How to Become One

Getting your bachelor’s degree in this field is a smart move. Research shows that almost 60% of people with a BSN in this field got a job right after graduation, compared with only 30% of new graduates in all other disciplines.

Mental Health Nurse

Mental health nurses also work closely with patients who have mental health issues. They are experts in assessing, diagnosing and treating people with psychiatric problems. Mental health nurses work as part of a team to provide total medical care for the patient. Some of the common duties of a mental health nurse include:

  • Evaluate the mental health needs of patients

  • Come up with treatment plans for the patient

  • Provide psychotherapy services

  • Provide personal care to the patient

  • Provide care in coordination with families, doctors and other health professionals

  • Give medications

Your responsibilities in this field will grow as your education and experience increase. As an LPN with a two year degree, you will mostly provide personal care for patients and give them medications. But when you earn your BSN and become a full RN, you will have the training to provide an assessment of the patient. You also will counsel the patient and her family.

If you become a mental health nurse practitioner with a master’s degree in nursing, you will often do many of the same tasks as psychiatrists. Some of the duties of these highly trained professionals include diagnosing complex mental health problems, conducting intense psychotherapy sessions and prescribing psychiatric drugs.

Where They Work

A mental health nurse may work in:

  • General hospitals

  • Psychiatric hospitals

  • Home healthcare organizations

  • Community health organizations

  • Private medical practices

How to Become One

You can work in mental health as a nurse whether you have an LPN degree, which is a two year degree, or with a BSN degree, which takes four years to complete. Also, you can earn a general BSN and then get your master’s degree in nursing, with a speciality in mental health nursing.

Whether you choose to become a psychiatric nurse or a mental health nurse, you will be able to play a vital role in improving the health of your patients.


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