Healthcare professional consoling a patient

How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Healthcare professional consoling a patient

For too many years, mental health was considered taboo, which meant many people avoided seeking treatment for legitimate medical conditions due to feelings of guilt or shame. Fortunately, our society has made major progress in recognizing mental health as a significant part of our overall well-being! If you’re excited by the idea of becoming a part of that change and having the opportunity to improve people’s lives for the better, becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner could be the best nursing specialty for you! It’s a rewarding career that’s also a fantastic way to make a living—in fact, we recently featured psychiatric nurse practitioners on our list of the highest-paid nursing jobs in 2021.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch your new career.

Not sure if becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner is the right nursing specialty for you? Click here to see our full list of the 18 highest-paying nursing jobs.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Definition

What Is a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who specialize in diagnosing and treating a variety of mental health conditions. They help their patients live healthier, happier, and more productive lives by administering a combination of medicinal and therapeutic treatments.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner: Job Description

What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Do?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners (also known as psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, or PMHNPs) often provide an initial diagnosis for people who may be experiencing acute symptoms of mental health crisis, as well as helping people better manage their mental health over the long term. Psychiatric nurse practitioners are able to prescribe pharmaceuticals like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, and often work in tandem with counselors, social workers, and other mental health professionals. In addition to medication management, psychiatric nurse practitioners also provide behavioral and cognitive therapy to help their patients process emotional trauma, or break out of old thinking patterns that may be holding them back.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of psychiatric nurse practitioners include:

  • Interviewing patients to determine the nature of their symptoms
  • Providing diagnoses for a variety of mental health conditions
  • Educating patients and their families on treatment options
  • Prescribing medications, monitoring effectiveness, and adjusting dosages as necessary
  • Providing counseling sessions to individuals, families, or groups
  • Collaborating with physicians, psychiatrists, and counselors or social workers

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Skills

To succeed as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, you’ll need a good amount of emotional resilience and intelligence, as it can sometimes be draining to care for people who may be going through one of the most difficult times in their lives. Communication and listening skills are also essential for PMHNPs, as your patients may be hesitant to fully open up about what they’re going through until they feel they can trust you completely. Finally, a strong sense of professionalism is a must for any psychiatric nurse practitioner, as some jobs may require working non-judgmentally with people who have committed crimes, or who may have a worldview that is very different from yours.

Therapist watching a patient on their phone

Where Do Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Work?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners work in a variety of settings. Most of the time you’ll find them working in specialty mental health hospitals, therapy centers, and rehabilitation facilities. Many general hospitals and urgent-care clinics also employ mental health professionals like PMHNPs. Psychiatric nurse practitioners who work in outpatient therapy centers or practice independently often work more standard business hours, while those at residential facilities or 24-hour hospitals may be required to work nights, weekends, or on-call shifts.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

Becoming a PMHNP is definitely a long-term goal that will require significant focus and work ethic in order to complete your education and gain the required experience for the job. But with the chance to change people’s lives while earning one of the highest salaries among all nursing specialties, the payoff is worth it! Like any other nursing job, you’ll need to start by earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited college or university. Traditionally, that requires spending a full four years in school, but with an accelerated degree program, you could earn your BSN in as little as 32 months! Psychiatric nurse practitioners will also need to earn a postsecondary degree—usually a master’s degree in nursing (MSN)—though some PMHNPs with teaching or leadership aspirations choose to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) instead.

Any long-term goal seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps, and becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner is no different.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner:

1. Enroll in a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) Program

The first step in your psychiatric nurse practitioner education is enrolling in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program from an accredited college or university. While nursing school will require plenty of dedication, hard work, and study time, nearly anyone who’s willing to put in the effort can get their degree and go on to pursue a career as a PMHNP. For example, to enroll in the BSN program at Brookline College, all you’ll need is a high school diploma or GED with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, plus a passing score on the ATI-TEAS admission exam.

Smiling graduates hugging on stage

2. Earn Your BSN Degree

Your journey to becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner starts the same way as all the other top nursing specialties—by earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Like any bachelor’s degree program, your BSN program will include general-education requirements like math, literature, statistics, psychology, and communications—courses you’ll find in any bachelor’s degree program. While these classes may not be directly related to nursing or medicine, they’ll help you become a listener and communicator with your patients, as well as improving your overall understanding of the human mind and how it works.

As expected, the primary goal of your BSN program is to build a solid fundamental knowledge of all the various aspects of nursing. Some of your classes will cover how to assess patients and care for a variety of patient groups, including patients dealing with mental health conditions or crises. Others will teach you about pharmacology and all the different medicines and units of measure used in the medical field. You’ll go through simulated clinical scenarios, and learn how to treat many different illnesses and injuries, which can often be risk factors or even catalysts for certain mental health problems.

Alongside your nursing-specific coursework, you’ll also spend time studying related medical sciences like anatomy, microbiology, nutrition, and human development. Psychiatric nurse practitioners often encourage patients to improve their overall physical wellness as part of their mental-health treatment plan, and therefore must have an advanced and well-rounded knowledge of the human body and how it works.

The last step of your BSN education requires completing a clinical capstone program, which will give you real-world experience with real patients. While your nursing program will involve plenty of simulated training exercises, there’s no substitute for hands-on experience with patients experiencing actual symptoms, and all the emotions that come along with them. As a psychiatric nurse practitioner operating with a great deal of independence, you’ll need to have a strong command of the fundamentals of nursing, which can only come from experience.

Wherever you choose to pursue your nursing degree, make sure it’s with a college that’s up-to-date on the latest training tools, and one with a proven track record of going the extra mile to help their students succeed. Nursing schools that offer students extra perks like job-placement programs can sometimes help you line up your first job as an RN before you’ve even finished school!

3. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

Before you can become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, you’ll need to get licensed as a registered nurse by passing the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX is a computer-adaptive test, meaning the number of questions and the amount of time it takes will depend on how many questions you answer correctly. The highest number of questions is typically around 265 over a maximum of six hours—however, the test can also be over in as few as 75 questions if you’re answering everything correctly! Two optional breaks are scheduled at the 2-hour mark and the 3.5-hour mark. Practice exams are widely available, and can calm those test-day nerves by helping you discover any areas you may need to brush up on, as well as giving you an advance look at the test format.

Close up of a nurse in scrubs and gear

4. Gain Experience as a Licensed Registered Nurse

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX, you’ll be eligible to receive a nursing license from the state in which you intend to practice. Since the NCLEX is nationally recognized, you’ll be able to take your talents anywhere you want to live and work. To jump-start your future career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, you’ll want to seek out employment as an RN anywhere you’ll be working with mental health patients. That will likely mean applying for jobs at specialty mental health clinics, rehabilitation facilities, or in the psychiatric ward of general hospitals.

Although renewal requirements vary slightly from state to state, you’ll generally need to renew your nursing license every two to three years. As long as you’ve been actively working as an RN or participating in continuing education programs (like an MSN program, for example), you should be able to keep your license current without any trouble.

5. Earn a Postsecondary Nursing Degree

Like all advanced practice registered nurses, psychiatric nurse practitioners must complete a postgraduate nursing degree. PMHNPs who want to focus on clinical practice usually seek a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) degree, though some people choose to go for a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), which may make you a more attractive candidate for academic or leadership roles in the future. Many educational institutions offer MSN programs focused on psychiatric nursing, which will build an advanced knowledge of diagnosing, treating, and managing mental health conditions far beyond what you learned during your BSN program.

You’ll find MSN and DNP programs for psychiatric nursing at many schools across the country, including online programs that allow working full-time as a registered nurse while earning your degree. Typically, earning your MSN degree takes two more years in school, though you can finish some accelerated programs as quickly as 18 months. DNP programs tend to take three to four more years in school after earning your BSN, or can be completed in one to two years if you’ve already earned an MSN.

6. Become a Certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

After completing an MSN program and gaining sufficient relevant experience, prospective psychiatric nurse practitioners will become eligible to take an exam from the American Nurses Credentialing Center to  become a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). Upon receiving this certification, you’ll be a great candidate for PMHNP jobs all over the country, and you’ll be able to get licensed as a nurse practitioner by the state in which you intend to practice.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Salary

How Much Do Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Make?

According to Salary.com, psychiatric nurse practitioners across the United States average an annual salary of over $109,000, which is equivalent to over $52 per hour. Among the top 10% of earners, salaries for psychiatric nurse practitioners can reach even higher—$129,000 or more per year.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Job Outlook

What Is the Job Outlook for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners?

As mental health awareness continues to improve throughout our society, there will be an increasing need for more mental health professionals to treat people who previously may have simply suffered in silence. While the BLS doesn’t provide detailed job data specifically for psychiatric nurse practitioners, they estimate the overall employment of nurse practitioners will increase a staggering 45% by the year 2029. That’s 13 times the average 4% growth rate for all other jobs across all industries, which means a career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner comes with one of the best long-term job outlooks you’ll find in the healthcare industry (or anywhere else, really).

Ready to Start Your Career as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners blend the advanced medical knowledge of psychiatrists with the caring touch of a counselor, which is why they’re often able to make such a massive difference in their patients’ lives. If you long for a fulfilling career spent helping people become the best version of themselves, becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner could be the nursing specialty you’ve been waiting to discover. Many PMHNPs agree there’s nothing like seeing patients make major breakthroughs before your eyes, and the chance to work in one of the top-paying nursing specialties is certainly a nice benefit too!

Ready to start taking steps toward an exciting, rewarding career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner? Click here to learn more about the BSN program at Brookline College, and start working toward your new career in nursing today!