Advanced Practice Nursing

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Curriculum

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Curriculum
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. Image from Unsplash
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Courtney Eiland September 26, 2022

You must earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. You'll study nursing across medical disciplines with a focus on mental health.

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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:

  • What is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?
  • How can I become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?
  • What will I learn in a PMHNP MSN program?
  • What is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Master of Science in Nursing (PMHNP MSN)?
  • How long does it take to earn a PMHNP MSN degree?
  • What are the PMHNP MSN program admissions criteria/prerequisites?

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner curriculum

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:

  • Advanced Health Assessment
  • Advanced Pathophysiology
  • Mental Health Assessment Across the Lifespan
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health Clinical Practice Across the Lifespan
  • Individual Psychotherapy
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Statistics and Research for Evidence-based Practice Nursing
  • Clinical Psychopharmacology Across the Lifespan
  • Transitions to Professional Practice
  • Promoting Health in the Community
  • Clinical Outcome Management in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing
  • Group Psychotherapy
  • Applied Psychopharmacology Across the Lifespan
  • Family Psychotherapy

What is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?

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:

  • Community mental health centers
  • Correctional facilities
  • Domestic violence shelters
  • Private psychiatric practices
  • Schools
  • Substance abuse facilities
  • Veterans Administration psychiatric facilities

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:

  • Assisting patients with achieving their recovery goals
  • Conducting intake screening, evaluations, and coordinating care
  • Deploying crisis intervention or stabilization methods
  • Engaging in psychiatric rehabilitation and intervention, including integrative therapy interventions
  • Providing diagnoses, treatment, and management of acute or chronic illnesses
  • Providing preventative care
  • Providing psychotherapy skills across the lifespan (from adolescents to seniors)

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.

How to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner

Becoming a certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner requires six steps, according to Indeed.com:

  • Become a registered nurse (RN)
  • Complete two years of full-time clinical practice as an RN
  • Earn your master’s or doctoral degree
  • Reach a minimum of 2,000 clinical practice hours and 30 hours of continuing education related to psychiatric-mental health
  • Apply to take the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC) offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
  • Successfully pass the board certification exam

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:

  • A registered nurse (RN) license
  • A master’s degree, post-graduate certificate, or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) with a minimum of 500 supervised clinical hours
  • Three separate graduate-level courses in physiology/pathophysiology, health assessment, and pharmacology
  • Content in health promotion and differential diagnosis and disease management
  • Clinical training in a minimum of two psychotherapeutic treatment modalities

Fortunately, some of your master’s degree coursework will focus on psychiatric-mental health, and the field practicum hours could count towards those requirements.

What will I learn in a PMHNP MSN program?

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:

  • Advanced health assessment
  • Advanced pathophysiology
  • Advanced pharmacotherapeutics
  • Advanced PMH assessment and intervention
  • Epidemiology of behavioral health
  • Neuroscience for mental health practitioners
  • Promoting health in the community
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Theories of individual and family psychotherapy
  • Therapeutic counseling modalities

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.

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

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:

How long does it take to earn a PMHNP MSN degree?

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.

What are the PMHNP MSN program admissions criteria/prerequisites?

General admission requirements for graduate-level nursing programs include:

  • Online application and associated fees
  • Transcripts
  • A cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 or higher from a bachelor’s degree program
  • Completion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) if GPA is lower than 3.0
  • Statement of purpose
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • English language proficiency exam for non-native English speakers

Additional requirements to gain entry into PMHNP MSN programs or other advanced nursing programs may include:

  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited institution
  • A registered nurse (RN) license with at least two years of full-time clinical practice
  • Professional resume with relevant work experience
  • Two letters of recommendation, preferably from a nursing instructor or clinical supervisor

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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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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