How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

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A mental health nurse counsels a patient.

Mental health nurses 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 the importance of mental health nurses in our health care system. Mental health disorders can vary in their severity and 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 (PMHNP) 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 can help their patients manage their medication, monitor their 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.

Benefits of Mental Health Nursing

For those interested in learning how to become a mental health nurse, it’s important to understand the numerous advantages of working in this field. The intimate level of care associated with treating mental health conditions can organically create deep bonds within the nurse-patient dynamic. This bond can be fueled by the importance that mental health nurses have in patients’ lives. Additionally, patients may experience heightened feelings of gratification and satisfaction when successes occur.

Mental health nurses may also enjoy a greater level of creativity in their role. Due to the individualized nature of mental health care, nurses in the field must approach each patient case uniquely and in a manner that best matches the patient’s singular needs. This can ultimately lead mental health nurses to tailor a wide range of treatment strategies as opposed to a handful of standard plans.

Another key benefit to becoming a mental health nurse is increased job security. As is the case with other professional nursing sectors, there is a shortage of mental health nurses in the country. Mitigating the effects of this shortage is crucial from a patient volume standpoint. According to the American Psychiatric Nursing Association, there are roughly 56 million American adults dealing with mental illness or substance abuse. Mental health nurses who effectively apply their knowledge and skill to close the current mental health nursing deficiency can potentially enjoy a long and satisfying career.

Steps to Become a Mental Health Nurse

Mental health nursing requires the cultivation of knowledge, skills, and immersion into real-world care scenarios. Because of this, those learning how to become mental health nurses should know there are typically several steps that must be completed prior to fully pursuing the role.

Step 1: Earn an Associate Degree in Nursing or a BSN Degree

Mental health nurses first obtain their registered nurse (RN) license by earning 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.

Step 2: Gain Work Experience

After obtaining an undergraduate degree and licensing, nurses should gain experience working as an RN. By working in a clinical setting, prospective nurses will have the opportunity to turn the knowledge gained from earning a degree into actionable skills that can broaden their perspective and deepen their understanding of care delivery. These sharpened competencies can serve as the foundation for the rest of their career.

Step 3: Earn an Advanced Nursing Degree

Individuals interested in becoming a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) can pursue an advanced degree. Nurses can earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree and then expand their education with a Post-Master’s Certificate. These advanced programs typically offer specialization tracks that can allow individuals to gain a deeper level of expertise in a particular aspect of nursing and care delivery, such as psychiatric mental health nursing.

Step 4: Obtain PMHNP Certification

After earning an advanced degree in the field, nurses need to pass the ANCC Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner board certification examination. The certification, when completed, provides confirmation of an individual’s knowledge and skills. It also provides them with a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHNP-BC) credential, which is good for five years before it needs to be renewed. The cost for renewal is slightly less than the cost of initially obtaining the certification, and there are discounts available to members of certain nurse-related organizations, such as the American Nurses Association.

Working as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

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.

Prior to embarking on the path toward a nursing career focused on mental health, 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. Many PMHNPs can prescribe medicine in approved states and diagnose acute illnesses, where registered mental health nurses are not granted this ability.

Conversely, the primary responsibility of a mental health nurse is to assess their patients. They are also allowed to administer and observe the effects of medication. 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 and monitor treatments that involve prescribed medication.

Mental Health Nurse and PMHNP Skills

Both mental health nurses and PMHNPs should 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/monitor medication
  • Exhibit patience with those who struggle to recover
  • Provide counseling to patients and their families
  • Track progress and keep specific records

Mental Health Nurse and PMHNP Salaries

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

  • Mental health nurses earn a median salary of around $67,200, according to March 2021 data from the compensation website PayScale.
  • PMHNPs earn a median salary of around $110,200, according to March 2021 data from PayScale.

It’s important to note that 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 52% between 2019 and 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Earn a Post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing

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 the Regis College online post-master’s certificates 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
American Psychiatric Nurses Association, Report: Shortage of Trained Professionals a Growing Threat to 
U.S. Mental Health System
National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCLEX FAQs
PayScale, Average Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary
PayScale, Average Psychiatric Nurse (RN) Hourly Pay
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners
Vents Magazine, Pros and Cons of Working as a Mental Health Nurse