Advanced Practice Nursing

How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?
Aspiring PMHNPs can expect between 8 and 11 years from the moment they start their nursing degree program to the time they become eligible to sit for their board certification exam. Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland August 31, 2022

If you're already a registered nurse, you can become a PMHNP in the two years it takes to earn an MSN plus complete any additional required course and fieldwork.

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Mental health has always mattered; rarely has that been more evident than in the past few years, when the COVID-19 public health emergency has shone a spotlight on this oft-neglected healthcare field. In the face of increased uncertainty, isolation, and loss, more people have acknowledged their need for professional assistance in addressing mental health issues.

Unfortunately, the supply of trained professionals to provide the proper assessment, treatment, and mental health care has not kept up with the demand. According to an Archives of Psychiatric Nursing report, the US will need 250,000 mental health workers by 2025 to meet need, and the country is well short of that number. In fact, 96 percent of US counties will lack sufficient mental health professionals empowered to prescribe necessary medications.

Consider just one example: one community in Vancouver, Washington suffered a staffing shortage that resulted in increased waiting time for treatment and a reduced options for insured youth. Such shortages have a multiplier effect, increasing burnout rates of overburdened healthcare professionals and making it difficult to”recruit and retain an adequate amount of behavioral health staff.”

Family Solutions, a nonprofit mental health agency in Vancouver, rallied for federal funding to address the mental health crisis. Part of the funding will help rebuild its workforce, serve more clients, and collaborate with local providers. Fortunately, communities and governments are recognizing the need to train more behavioral health professionals, including social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), and specifically psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs).

So, how long does it take behavioral health professionals—such as psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs)—to gain the essential skills and competencies to help fill this void? This article discusses how long it takes to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and answers the following questions:

  • What is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?
  • Where do psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners work?
  • How much do psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners earn?
  • What is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Master of Science in Nursing (PMHNP MSN)?
  • What are the PMHNP MSN program admissions criteria/prerequisites?
  • What will I learn in a PMHNP MSN program?

How long does it take to become a psychiatric mental health nurse?

Becoming a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) takes time, dedication, education, years of experience, licenses, and board certifications. Aspiring PMHNPs can expect between 8 and 11 years from the moment they start their nursing degree program to the time they become eligible to sit for their board certification exam.

What is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?

A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) falls under the advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) umbrella. These highly trained professionals provide care and treatment to individuals, families, groups, and communities dealing with mental illnesses or behavioral disorders. The services they provide throughout the lifespan, from childhood to senior care, include:

  • Diagnosing mental health conditions and psychiatric disorders
  • Developing and implementing treatment plans
  • Providing individual, group, or family psychotherapy
  • Collaborating with team members, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and nursing staff
  • Educating patients and family members about mental health conditions and self-care
  • Maintaining patient records
  • Interpreting lab test results
  • Providing referrals for more complex needs to primary care physicians or specialists

PMHNPs work as full-practice nurse practitioners (NPs) in some states, while others have limited or restricted practice. Full practice—the model recommended by the National Academy of Medicine and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing—includes more extensive duties such as evaluating patients, prescribing medications, and initiating and managing treatments without oversight from a medical physician.

Where do psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners work (and how much do they earn)?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) is on pace to grow 45 percent throughout the decade, significantly faster than the average rate for all occupations. Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) , adult nurse practitioners (ANPs), and adult-gerontology nurse practitioners (AGNPs) make up the majority of licensed nurse practitioners.

While less than five percent of nurse practitioners carry the PMHNP-BC credential, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are the second-largest group of behavioral health professionals. PMHNPs work in a variety of settings, such as:

  • Assertive community treatment (ACT) teams
  • Community mental health centers
  • Correctional facilities
  • Domestic violence shelters
  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Private psychiatric practices
  • Schools
  • Substance abuse facilities
  • Telemedicine
  • Veterans Administration psychiatric facilities

With a career in such high demand, PMHNPs earn a lucrative salary. The average base salary for a PMHNP is $140,272 per year, with the potential for higher incomes based on education, years of experience, geographic location, and focus area within psychiatric mental health. PMHNPs can specialize in child and adolescent mental health, gerontological-psychiatric care, military mental health, and additional categories.

How to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (and how long it takes)

Becoming a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner won’t happen overnight. The journey requires a nursing education, a registered nurse (RN) license, years of clinical experience, an advanced nursing degree, and additional supervised clinical hours. If you’re starting from scratch, the process can take up to 11 years to complete:

  • Two to four years: Earn your nursing degree from a two-year associate degree program, a nursing diploma from a three-year hospital based-program, or completion of a four-year bachelor’s degree, preferably a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
  • Two years: After completing your nursing degree, apply for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to become a registered nurse (RN). Then work full-time as an RN in clinical practice for at least two years.
  • One to two years: Pursue a master’s degree, preferably a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), through a program specializing in psychiatric-mental health nursing. Most programs take two years to complete, including a field practicum. However, some schools offer accelerated programs that take as little as three semesters of full-time study. In addition, some schools have RN-to-MSN bridge programs that may expedite the process for non-BSN degree holders. Students can also opt to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.
  • Three years: Reach 2,000 hours of clinical practice and at least 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric-mental health.

Once you’ve completed the steps above, you can apply for the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certification (PMHNP-BC) exam provided by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). However, before doing so, you will need to meet all the eligibility requirements:

  • Have a current, active RN license
  • Hold a master’s, post-graduate, or doctoral degree from an accredited PMHNP program that includes at least 500 supervised clinical hours through a field practicum
  • Complete three advanced, graduate-level courses in physiology/pathophysiology, health assessment, and pharmacology
  • Complete content that covers health promotion, differential diagnosis, and disease management
  • Undergo clinical training in a minimum of two psychotherapeutic treatment modalities

The PMHNP-BC exam consists of 175 questions (25 unscored pretest questions) with 3.5 hours to complete. Most questions are multiple-choice and test your knowledge of scientific foundation, advanced practice skills, diagnosis and treatment, psychotherapy and related theories, and ethical and legal principles.

You can choose between two less time-consuming options if you’re already working as a nurse practitioner in a different specialization. One option is to pursue an entry-level role in psychiatric-mental health and take continuing education courses related to the field. Alternatively, you can choose to obtain an advanced degree from a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program for a more structured educational experience.

What is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Master of Science in Nursing (PMHNP MSN)?

PMHNP Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs cover a combination of foundational and in-depth, comprehensive coursework paired with supervised fieldwork education. In addition, these nursing programs prepare future practitioners to apply a holistic approach, healing the “whole person” when assessing, diagnosing, treating, and evaluating patients across the lifespan. A PMHNP MSN is necessary for individuals seeking more extensive responsibilities within advanced practice nursing roles.

Top PMHNP MSN programs, such as those found at Duke University, University of North Carolina, and New York University, have master’s programs that take at least two years to complete. Vanderbilt University offers a one-year program that includes three semesters of full-time study combined with field practicum requirements. While most schools have on-campus programs, the Yale University School of Nursing will launch its first online master’s degree program in summer 2023, providing flexible part-time options for registered nurses. This option is in addition to their existing on-campus PMHNP program.

What are the PMHNP MSN program admissions criteria/prerequisites?

MSN admission requirements vary depending on the program. However, most MSN programs require:

  • Completion of a bachelor’s degree program
  • Minimum GPA requirement
  • Official transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Statement of purpose

Additional prerequisites for PMHNP MSN programs include:

What will I learn in a PMHNP MSN program?

A PMHNP MSN program equips future practitioners with the advanced knowledge and evidence-based practice to perform extensive duties in psychiatric-mental health care. Many students who enroll in PMHNP programs already have the fundamental knowledge and years of clinical experience under their belt. Therefore, students can expect advanced level, comprehensive coursework that will delve into complex focused areas, such as:

  • Advanced health assessment
  • Advanced pathophysiology
  • Advanced pharmacology
  • Advanced psychiatric-mental health assessment and intervention
  • Epidemiology of behavioral health
  • Mental health policy and advocacy
  • Neurobiology
  • Psychotherapy (for individuals, families, and groups)
  • Therapeutic counseling modalities

The mental healthcare field continues to grow. However, to close the gap between the demand for trained behavioral health professionals and the expected job growth in this field, qualified and trained professionals are a critical need to ensure individuals, families, groups, and communities receive the necessary assessment and care.

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Categorized as: Advanced Practice NursingNursing & Healthcare