How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Science in Nursing

Mental health nurse counsels a depressed military officer with a psychiatric disorder.

Mental health nurses: They are responsible for providing care to some of the most vulnerable members of society — those with mental health disorders. Where mental health issues may have been hidden in the past, health care advocates encourage the honest and open discussion of mental health within our society today.

As awareness increases, so does clinical demand, and with that, the importance of mental health nurses in our health care system. Mental health disorders can vary in their severity and their impact on one’s quality of life, and mental health nurses have the training to meet the unique challenges these disorders present. The roles and responsibilities of mental health nurses depend on many factors, including their certifications, skills, and education.

A nursing student or medical professional who is curious about how to become a mental health nurse may consider pursuing advanced education, such as an online post-master’s certificate with a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner specialization.

What Do Mental Health Nurses Do?

Registered mental health nurses have a variety of responsibilities. They focus on the specific needs of their patient’s mental health by contributing to diagnoses and helping develop plans of care. These nurses cannot prescribe medication, but can help their patients take and manage their medicine. They also monitor patients’ health status and educate them about their conditions.

Part of the role of a mental health nurse is to work closely with their patient’s psychiatrist and physician. Mental health nurses can work in many settings, such as hospitals, psychiatric centers, and rehabilitation clinics.

What are Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners?

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are advanced practice nurses who assist patients with their mental health. They have a greater level of responsibility than registered nurses, as well as higher earning potential. The responsibilities of a PMHNP include the diagnosis, treatment, and management of mental health disorders in their patients. PMHNPs work primarily in psychiatric hospitals, private practices, and mental health units inside medical facilities.

Educational Requirements

A nursing student who is curious about how to become a mental health nurse should understand the educational requirements of the job. Mental health nurses first obtain their registered nurse (RN) license through either an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing, followed by passing the NCLEX-RN national exam. Afterward, they must receive a secondary license or certification pertaining directly to mental health through a nationally accredited program.

To become a certified PMHNP, nurses must earn either an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing and hold an active RN license. They must also pass the NCLEX-RN national exam and gain experience as a nurse. Then, registered nurses must earn a master’s, postgraduate, or doctoral degree to advance. After earning an advanced degree in the field, nurses must pass the ANCC Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner board certification examination.

Difference Between Mental Health Nurses and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

In discovering how to become a mental health nurse, it’s important to understand the differences between a registered mental health nurse and a PMHNP. First, PMHNPs have a higher level of education than mental health nurses, and thus they are granted more responsibility. Because they have received specialized training in a particular field, PMHNPs are able to operate more autonomously. In fact, in some states, PMHNPs are able to operate without the direct supervision of a doctor. PMHNPs can prescribe medicine and diagnose acute illnesses, where registered mental health nurses are not granted this ability.

The primary responsibility of a mental health nurse is to assess their patients. They also are allowed to administer and observe the effects of medication. Since they are not primary care providers, mental health nurses serve as a liaison between patients, doctors, and the families of patients. Overall, mental health nurses help their patients with behavior modification programs.

Mental Health Nurse and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Skills

Mental health nurses and PMHNPs must be able to demonstrate a range of essential skills in the performance of their jobs. As such, they are required to earn a degree or several degrees in the field. With a strong foundation of education and experience, PMHNPs and mental health nurses should be able to:

  • Understand a patient’s medical and psychiatric history
  • Assess a patient’s symptoms and causes
  • Demonstrate empathy for patients
  • Diagnose a specific illness (PMHNPs only)
  • Help patients cope with chronic issues
  • Administer medication
  • Exhibit patience with those who struggle to recover
  • Provide counseling to patients and their families
  • Track progress and keep specific records

Salaries for Mental Health Nurses

A nursing student who is curious about the difference between mental health nurses and PMHNPs — and who wants to learn how to become a mental health nurse — may want to consider the difference in annual salaries.

  • Mental health nurses earn an average of $89,792, according to ZipRecruiter.
  • Nurse practitioners earn an average of $115,800, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

It’s important to note that annual salaries can vary based on job location, years of experience, and other factors. When it comes to employment, the job outlook for nurse practitioners in all specialties is projected to grow 26% between 2018 and 2028, according to the BLS.

Pursue a Master of Science in Nursing

Both mental health nurses and PMHNPs serve an important role in the treatment of patients with mental illness. For health care professionals who aspire to work in the field, earning an advanced degree could be an invaluable stepping-stone toward a more elevated role.

Regis College offers multiple online post-master’s certificates, including one that specializes in psychiatric mental health. Regis College is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and has been designated as a Center of Excellence in Nursing Education by the National League for Nursing.

Explore Regis College’s online Post-Master’s Certificates program today, and learn more about how to become a mental health nurse.

Recommended Readings

Future of Nursing: Trends in a Demanding Industry

The Importance of Teamwork and Collaboration in Nursing

What Does HEENT Stand For?


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?” 

American Nurses Credentialing Center, “Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC)”

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, “Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses” 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners 

Zip Recruiter, Mental Health Nurse Annual Salary