Behavioral health issues, substance abuse, and public health emergencies (e.g., the opioid crisis) pose serious challenges to our healthcare system and society at large. Exacerbating this problem is a shortage of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs), contributing to delays in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment for individuals suffering from severe mental illnesses or psychiatric disorders.
The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) indicates that out of more than 355,000 licensed nurse practitioners in the United States, only 4.7 percent have psychiatric or mental health certification. (For comparison sake: family nurse practitioners (FNP) make up 70 percent of NPs, adult nurse practitioners (ANP) 11 percent, and adult-gerontology nurse practitioners (AGNP) in primary care 7 percent). This shortage of nurse practitioners specializing in psychiatric-mental health creates a void in communities that rely on inpatient and outpatient care.
For example, assertive community treatment (ACT), an evidence-based practice, treats patients in their homes or communities rather than admitting them to mental health facilities or overcrowded hospitals. For decades, ACT teams have provided essential services by conducting home visits, taking patients to medical appointments, finding housing, and several additional initiatives. With the onset of the pandemic, the need for these services grew in demand and cost. In Maine, one psychiatric nurse practitioner supported 100 patients in a community served by ACT. The demand for more PMHNPs is clear.
So what exactly does this profession entail and how can you gain the critical knowledge and competencies to excel in this discipline? This article discusses what you can expect from a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner curriculum and answers the following questions:
The nursing field continues to expand with varied specializations that require unique skills. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner programs prepare nurses for a career with extensive responsibilities.
Curricula in this discipline vary by PMHNP program. Most programs focus on a holistic approach that combines biological, psychological, social, spiritual, and cultural elements. Many programs also follow a lifespan approach, requiring students to gain skills in working with patients of all ages. In addition, hands-on clinical experience supervised by an experienced professional (or preceptor) allows students to apply their knowledge through a field practicum.
The PMHNP MSN program at Yale University—which will launch its first online class in 2023—offers the following courses:
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are highly qualified and trained advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who provide behavioral healthcare to individuals, families, groups, and communities. They also work to fight mental health stigma by educating patients, peers, and the community.
PMHNPs work in a variety of settings, including:
While some duties may overlap among social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and PMHNPs, PMNHPs are qualified to handle unique responsibilities as advanced practice nurses. State regulations determine the level of autonomy at which PMHNPs can function; in many states, they can evaluate patients, prescribe medications, and initiate treatment without the supervision or approval of an MD. Additional functions include:
A career as a PMHNP requires years of education, experience, licensures, and certifications. Pay is commensurate with the mandatory level of training. The average base salary is $140,200 annually for PMHNP professionals in the United States. Additional factors, such as location, can boost your earnings. For example, a PMHNP in New York City (considered one of the highest-paying cities in this field) can net an annual base salary of $162,475.
Becoming a certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner requires six steps, according to Indeed.com:
Once you've earned your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), associate degree in nursing (ADN), or hospital-based nursing diploma, you can take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). While a BSN from an accredited institution is not the only qualification to apply for your nursing license, it helps expedite becoming a PMHNP.
If you're interested in becoming a nurse practitioner or an advanced practice registered nurse, you'll need to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Some MSN degree programs specialize in psychiatric-mental health and offer a mandatory field practicum to help practitioners gain essential skills and competencies in that discipline.
The final step in becoming a certified PMHNP is successfully passing the board examination. First, you'll need to meet the eligibility requirements, which include:
Fortunately, some of your master's degree coursework will focus on psychiatric-mental health, and the field practicum hours could count towards those requirements.
Several PMHNP MSN programs offer similar core courses designed to prepare students for certification and work in this challenging profession. The typical PMHNP curriculum includes an in-depth focus on:
In addition, most PMHNP MSN programs include clinical experience through a supervised field practicum. This experience provides hands-on training in assessing patients, developing care plans, evaluating and monitoring acute or chronic mental illnesses, and collaborating with other mental healthcare professionals.
A PMHNP MSN program is the gateway to a career in psychiatric-mental health. Finding a program that meets the core competencies required by the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) is essential. Schools with top PMHNP programs that position future practitioners for career readiness include:
Most PMHNP MSN programs require two years of full-time study to complete. Some full-time programs—Vanderbilt's, for one—can take just three semesters (fall, spring, and summer).
The number of credit hours and field education hours also varies by program. For example, Hunter College requires 48 credits and 630 hours of supervised clinical experience. Yale University requires 52.5 credits and 774 clinical hours.
Few programs provide distance learning options. However, future online programs, such as the Yale School of Nursing's upcoming PMHNP program (enrolling students in summer 2023), open opportunities for more flexibility. These part-time options, designed for RNs, allow working professionals to continue serving in their local communities.
General admission requirements for graduate-level nursing programs include:
Additional requirements to gain entry into PMHNP MSN programs or other advanced nursing programs may include:
Many years of education and experience precede practice as a certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. Fortunately, the PMHNP curricula in many programs help prepare aspiring practitioners to gain critical knowledge and clinical experience to succeed in this specialization.
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