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What Do Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurses Do?

Nursing is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nursing careers are projected to grow 15% by 2026 — more than twice the average. One of the advantages of working in a booming field like nursing is that there are so many directions for career growth and specialization.

One increasingly popular nursing specialty is psychiatric mental health nursing. While many mental health patients seek treatment from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health counselor, nurses often play a vital role in the psychiatric care process.
There are two common types of nurses in this specialty: psychiatric nurses and mental health nurses. On this page, you can learn about what each specialist does.

Psychiatric Nurses
According to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA), psychiatric nurses are experts in crisis intervention, mental health assessment, medication and therapy, and patient assistance. Psychiatric nurses work closely with patients to help them manage their mental illnesses and live productive, fulfilling lives.

How They Work
When working with a new patient, psychiatric nurses start by interviewing and assessing them to learn about their history, symptoms, other ailments, and daily habits. A psychiatric nurse will usually work with people who have

anxiety disorders, like panic attacks and phobias;
mood disorders, including bipolar disorder and depression;
issues with substance abuse, such as drugs and alcohol; or,
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Psychiatric nurses work closely with treatment teams to develop individualized patient plans, aiming to maximize care and help patients live productive lives. They also provide individual counseling to patients and families to help them understand the illness. Depending on the situation, nurses may also help patients dress, groom, and take their medications.

Where They Work
Psychiatric nurses work in many environments. A few common ones are

Psychiatric hospitals
Home healthcare organizations
Outpatient mental health organizations
Schools that serve people with emotional and mental issues
Hospital-based psychiatric nurses typically work 12-hour shifts, which is standard practice for nurses. Psychiatric nurses mostly work in inpatient centers and correctional facilities.

How to Become One
Becoming a psychiatric nurse requires at least a two-year associate degree in nursing, but most employers prefer a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Once you complete your nursing degree, you must first pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN), then complete a PMHNP-BC certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ACNN) to become a psychiatric mental health nurse.

Certification requires an active RN license, two years of clinical experience, 2,000 hours in a psychiatric nursing practice, and 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric nursing. The certification is valid for five years, and renewal requires 75 hours of continuing education and one or more of the following: a presentation or lecture, publication or research, preceptorship, volunteer hours, a minimum of 1,000 practice hours, or a professional assessment.

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

Evaluating mental health needs of patients
Developing treatment plans
Providing psychotherapy services
Providing personal care
Coordinating with families, doctors, and other health professionals
Administering medications
Nursing responsibilities grow with education and experience. 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 assess and counsel patients.

Mental health nurse practitioners with an MSN perform many of the same tasks as psychiatrists. These duties can include diagnosing complex mental health problems, conducting psychotherapy sessions, and prescribing psychiatric drugs, all under the supervision of a physician or RN.

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 a BSN degree, which takes four years to complete. You could also earn a general BSN and then get your master’s degree in nursing with a speciality in mental health nursing. Below, we examine the different types of nursing programs for those considering careers as psychiatric or mental health nurses.

The Educational Paths to Becoming a Psychiatric or Mental Health Nurse
Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
The ADN is the most common degree among RNs. It’s a 60-credit hour program and takes 18-24 months to complete. Students can choose between on-campus and online programs. Programs include core classes and a clinical rotation, which teach the basic skills necessary for entry-level positions in the nursing field.

Requirements vary by program, but some common core nursing courses are foundations in nursing, nursing care of adults, behavioral health, pharmacology, and maternal and child nursing care. After graduation, you need to pass the NCLEX-RN to receive your RN certification before you’re eligible to work as a nurse.

The ADN prepares you for entry-level positions in hospitals, nursing homes, physician offices, and home healthcare. As an entry-level RN, you perform basic tasks including operating medical equipment, checking patient vitals, wound care, diagnostic testing, and tracking patient charts.

A benefit of the ADN is that it only takes two years to complete, which allows you to begin earning income and work experience. A drawback is that career advancement is limited because a growing number of employers prefer higher-level degrees. However, the ADN builds a foundation from which you can pursue specialties like psychiatric nursing. Also, associate degree coursework fulfills necessary prerequisites for other degree programs. This makes an associate degree a practical way to start your nursing career.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
The BSN is a four-year, 120-123 credit hour degree. It is typically completed on-campus at a college or university, but online programs are becoming more popular. If you are already an RN, you should consider an RN-to-BSN degree. This is an accelerated program that accounts for work experience, which allows you to graduate sooner.

The program consists of core courses and a clinical rotation. Some common courses include nursing basics, pharmacology, research in nursing, and statistics. Minimum required clinical hours vary by program, but the average is three clinical hours for every one classroom hour. Upon graduation, you will be eligible for entry-level nursing positions.

A few advantages of a BSN over an associate degree is that you gain more in-depth education, command a higher salary, and are better positioned for career advancement. Also, a growing number of employers prefer applicants with a BSN, sometimes implementing deadlines by which associate degree employees must earn a BSN. If you are interested in pursuing a specialty like psychiatric nursing, a BSN helps you apply to higher level degrees. Additionally, some certifications require a BSN to apply.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
The MSN is an advanced degree for RNs interested in pursuing a specialty. Common specialities are nurse practitioner, certified nurse anesthesiologist, clinical nurse specialist, and certified nurse midwife. Programs require 60-75 credit hours and take 18-24 months to complete. There are both on-campus and online options available. Coursework varies depending on specialty, but most MSN programs require a minimum of 600 hours in a clinical rotation to graduate. Admission requirements vary by school and specialty, but typically you need at least a bachelor’s degree, a GRE test score, and letters of recommendation to apply.

The key benefit of an MSN is specialization, which opens up advanced clinical positions. For instance, earning an MSN with a psychiatric concentration allows you to earn an APRN certification and practice as a psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioner. This is a high-level clinician role that offers higher pay, increased autonomy and responsibility, and opportunity for career growth. In some cases, an MSN is required for retaining a nursing license. The main drawbacks to earning an MSN are cost, difficulty, and time commitment.

Deciding whether an MSN is the right path for you comes down to your career goals. An MSN is geared toward those who seek higher clinical positions or want to teach. If that isn’t your career goal, an MSN might not be right for you.