Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

A psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) is an advanced practice nurse that has pursued specialized education in the field of psychiatric and mental health nursing. This interdisciplinary profession blends psychological, pharmacological, sociological and biological sciences. PMHNPs play a critical role in the treatment, care, management and recovery of individuals suffering from conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse dependencies and more.

According to the National Panel for Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Competencies, a major part of a PMHNP's job description involves the assessment of a patient's general mental health condition. To do this, psychiatric nurses administer psychiatric evaluations, collect medical histories, and identify issues that may be affecting a patient's state of mental health. Upon determining a proper diagnosis, these professionals create an individualized strategy of treatment for the patient. These may consist of pharmaceutical medications, holistic solutions or other alternatives, depending on the situation.

Levels of Psychiatric Nursing

Generally speaking, psychiatric nursing falls into two main career paths: psychiatric nurse and psychiatric nurse practitioner.

  • Psychiatric nurse: Generally speaking, psychiatric nurses hold an associate or bachelor's degree and are certified as registered nurses. They typically serve as primary care providers for individuals suffering from mental disorders.
  • Psychiatric nurse practitioner: A "Psychiatric Mental Health Advanced Practice Registered Nurse" (PHM-APRN) is an advanced-practicing nurse who works in the field of psychiatry. They generally hold a master's or doctorate degree and are able to handle many of the same responsibilities as psychiatrists, such as prescribing medication or diagnosing mental illnesses. (Please note that the extent of a nurse practitioner's abilities and responsibilities may vary by state.)

Nurses working in either career path may also choose to specialize in a number of areas, including gerontology, substance abuse, eating disorders and more. Sub-specialties often pertain to particular age populations, such as pediatric, child, adolescent, adult or geriatric populations.

How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner


Those interested in becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner must start by pursuing an undergraduate degree in nursing, passing the NCLEX-RN examination, and gaining experience as a registered nurse (RN). Working as an RN is an important step for reaching the advanced rank of nurse practitioner. Some nurses may find themselves well-suited to working as a psychiatric registered nurse; in this case, you may wish to learn more about the career on our Registered Nurse page.

RNs looking to advance to the level of a psychiatric nurse practitioner, however, should begin thinking about pursuing a master's degree program after they have earned some hands-on clinical experience as an RN. Before beginning a graduate-level nurse practitioner program, students may be required to satisfy a series of admission requirements, such as: passing a criminal background check, passing drug screening, presenting immunization history, undergoing a physical examination, possessing CPR certification, undergoing an interview process and/or providing academic and professional references.

Finally, some graduate nursing programs require students to complete prerequisite coursework in subjects such as:

  • Human pathophysiology
  • Physical assessment
  • Pharmacology
  • Computer literacy
  • Advanced health assessment

Degree Programs

All psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) programs are at the graduate level. The two most popular degrees awarded by PMHNP programs are a Master of Science in Nursing: Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and a Doctor of Nursing Practice: Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. However, students that already hold a Master of Science in Nursing, but need to earn specialized education and training in psychiatric mental health nursing without completing another graduate degree program, could choose to earn a Post-Master's Certificate in Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, which typically only takes one year to complete.

Graduate-level psychiatric nurse practitioner programs usually focus on instructing students in the various aspects of psychiatric nursing theory, including advanced pathophysiology, disease management, health promotion, pharmacology, health assessment, disease prevention, and diagnosis.

Here are some examples of actual courses found in various psychiatric nurse practitioner programs throughout the United States:

  • Group Psychotherapy in Psychiatric Nursing
  • Addiction Perspectives
  • Theoretical Foundations of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing
  • Family Therapy
  • Psychiatric Issues within Specialty Populations
  • Health Promotion and Illness Prevention across the Lifespan

Some psychiatric nursing students may opt to narrow their scope of practice by earning additional education in sub-specialties of PMHNP. Some colleges and universities may offer degree, certificate or endorsement programs that cater to sub-specialties in psychiatric mental health nursing.

Hands-on Training

In terms of clinical training, most programs are likely to contain at least 500 hours of supervised practical experience. This applied clinical training is often completed at local off-campus healthcare settings where psychiatric nurses are employed. Students that are enrolled in online programs may be responsible for locating their own clinical training sites.

Online Schools for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners

According to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), there are over seventy-five accredited psychiatric nurse practitioner programs located through the country as of 2013. Since many of these AANP-approved psychiatric nurse practitioner programs offer distance-learning options, students do not necessarily need to commute or relocate in order to earn an academic degree. Likewise, more than ever modern students are taking advantage of online schools offering psychiatric nurse practitioner programs.


National certification is an essential step in developing a long-lasting and successful career as a psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) currently provides professional certification to both adult psychiatric nurse practitioners and family psychiatric nurse practitioners. Once certified, psychiatric NPs would be able to use the credential of Board Certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC).

Before receiving the opportunity to sit for examination, all professionals must first hold an active registered nurse's license in the state in which they intend to practice. Also, all candidates must graduate from a psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner program at the master's, post-master's, or doctorate level. This educational program has to be accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC).

Once these eligibility requirements have been meet, professionals will then need to obtain and submit an ANCC Adult Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner certification application. After the application is approved, professionals can then sit for the competency examination. Certification is only granted if examination is passed. Recertification is mandatory every five years with the completion of seventy-five contact hours of continuing education in field-related activities.

Skills and Qualities

Since psychiatric nurse practitioners work in close physical and emotional proximity to patients and their families, as well as collaborating with other staff members, open communication and education regarding psychiatric care is yet another important aspect of the job performed by psychiatric nurse practitioners. Other job responsibilities may include managing health care delivery systems, monitoring quality care, and conducting research in the field.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

In this position, psychiatric nurses may provide a range of care to patients, including administering psychiatric medication, assisting with electroconvulsive therapy, instructing families through behavioral therapy, as well as providing direct physical care.

Some common places of employment may include mental health facilities, professional associations, primary care centers, public health departments, community hospitals, substance abuse recovery sites, private practices and emergency psychiatric units.

Professional and Academic Resources for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners

Major psychiatric nursing associations include the American Psychiatric Nurses Association and the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses.


  • Clinical Advisor, 2013 Nurse Practitioner & Physician Assistant Salary Survey, http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Psychiatric_Nurse_%28RN%29/Hourly_Rate
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Practitioners, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291171.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses, OES, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses, OOH, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
  • American Psychiatric Nursing Association, About Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing, http://www.apna.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3292

Psychiatric Nurse Schools