Psychology

What Does a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Do?

What Does a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Do?
PMHNPs work in a variety of healthcare settings, including both inpatient and outpatient facilities. Image from Pexels
Katy McWhirter profile
Katy McWhirter September 20, 2022

A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) assesses, diagnoses, and treats patients facing mental health challenges. Demand is on the rise for this rising medical practice.

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Awareness of mental health issues is on the uptick in the US and worldwide. In July 2022, the US government rolled out 998, a new mental health crisis hotline similar to 911, with the goal of addressing the continual uptick in mental illnesses faced by Americans. Mental Health America reported that 5.4 million individuals completed a mental health screening in 2021, an increase of almost 500 percent from the number who completed a screening in 2019. The pressures resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak have certainly exacerbated what was already a rising concern.

As our society continues to face more issues around mental health—anxiety, depression, mood disorders, bipolar disorders, and many other identified types of mental health issues—questions swirl around how to most effectively address this surge. More specifically, who can help these individuals? The expansion of psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner specialties in MSN and DNP programs reflects an increasing need for trained professionals.

The role of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) has grown in importance recently, thanks to their ability to assess, diagnose, and treat patients with appropriate therapies and medications. While these healthcare professionals’ responsibilities and level of autonomy differ from psychiatrists and psychologists, they stand to play a vital role in addressing mental health conditions in the coming years.

So, what does a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner do? This article explores that question and also addresses:

  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner education
  • What do you learn in a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Master of Science in Nursing (PMHNP MSN) program?

What does a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner do?

Psychiatric mental nealth nurse practitioners function as advanced practice RNs; they play pivotal roles in supporting patients with mental health illnesses and diseases. They perform many of the same jobs as psychiatrists and can enjoy rewarding careers helping others.

Responsibilities

Responsibilities laid on these professionals include providing mental health services across the lifespan, supporting those with substance abuse issues, creating treatment plans, and meeting patients’ mental health needs as they arise.

Unlike psychologists or therapists who provide counseling services, PMHNPs focus on the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of various mental health issues with therapies and medications. While they may refer patients to counseling professionals, they do not directly provide these services.

Where PMHNPs work

PMHNPs work in a variety of healthcare settings, including both inpatient and outpatient facilities. Professionals who support those with substance use disorders may work in detoxification facilities or addiction treatment and recovery centers; those interested in helping patients with depression and anxiety may provide services via a physician’s office or mental healthcare organization.

When thinking about where you want to work after completing all PMHNP educational and licensure requirements, learn which states allow nurse practitioners to practice independently. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners provides an interactive map of state practice environments, including those with full, reduced, or restricted practice requirements.

While PMHNPs living in a full practice state can provide mental health services outside the supervision of a physician, those in restricted states cannot. In reduced practice states, limitations can vary in terms of autonomy, making it important to review practice and licensure laws carefully. Currently, 27 states allow for full practice – in addition to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

PMHNP salary

Salaries for psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners vary based on several factors, including the states in which these nurses practice, number of years of experience, whether they are employed or in private practice, and whether they engage in full-time or part-time work. According to Glassdoor, PMHNPs earned total pay of $107,515 per year as of September 2022. Meanwhile, Payscale reports that these professionals bring home average annual salaries of $118,490. A survey commissioned by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners in 2020 shows a reported annual wage of $137,000, including base salary, bonuses, incentive payments, and any additional benefits.

PMHNPs looking to maximize their salary potential typically decide to move toward private practice roles, if allowed in their state.

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Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner education

Becoming a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner requires candidates to complete multiple steps, with most spending approximately six years in higher education.

Education and training

The first step in becoming a PMHNP involves completing an associate degree or bachelor of science in nursing degree (BSN). These programs take between two and four years and provide the training and credentials needed to pass the NCLEX-RN examination and obtain an RN license.

Some individuals decide to work as full-time RNs for a time while others move directly into a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP). These programs must hold accreditation through the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). As part of these programs, learners take part in a faculty-supervised clinical experience. To qualify for PMHNP certification after graduating, these hours must total 500 or more.

Certification

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) administers the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification examination that all future PMHNPs must take and pass.

The certification exam consists of 175 questions (150 of which are graded) and provides 3.5 hours to finish. After passing, the credential remains valid for five years and is renewable for all who continue meeting requirements.

Licensing

After completing an ASN or BSN and passing the NCLEX-RN exam, individuals can apply for licensure in the state in which they plan to practice. Licensure requirements vary from state to state, making it important that applicants check with their local board of nursing to learn about specifics.

What do you learn in a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Master of Science in Nursing (PMHNP MSN) program?

PMHNP MSN programs provide academic and clinical instruction in advanced psychiatric and mental health topics, preparing students both for certification and clinical practice. Within Yale University’s School of Nursing, the PMHNP MSN specialty covers topics such as advanced pathophysiology, mental health assessment across the lifespan, individual psychotherapy, clinical outcome management in psychiatric-mental health nursing, and family psychotherapy. Learners also participate in nearly 800 clinical hours across the program.

How long does it take to earn a PMHNP MSN?

Timelines for PMHNP nursing programs vary based on both individual schools and student schedules. While Yale University’s program requires two years of full-time study, Vanderbilt University PMHNP MSN program provides both part-time and full-time options. Students who plan to continue working as RNs while earning their MSN should carefully review scheduling options to find a program that works best with their needs.

What are the PMHNP MSN program admissions criteria/prerequisites?

As with learning timelines, admission criteria also vary from program to program. Applicants hoping to receive admission to Yale’s PMHNP must complete prerequisite courses in general chemistry with lab, microbiology with lab, and human anatomy and physiology I and II with lab. Those with cumulative GPAs lower than 3.0 must also submit GRE scores.

In the case of Hunter College’s PMHNP degree program, applicants should possess at least two years of full-time experience as a registered nurse as well as undergraduate training in basic statistics and research.

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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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