Addressing the Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Shortage

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A mother and daughter attend a therapy session with a psychiatric nurse practitioner.The growing demand for mental health care in the U.S. is surpassing the number of mental health practitioners. According to 2020 data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 21% of American adults have a mental disorder; however, less than half of them get treatment. The scarcity of care limits people’s capacity to get mental health treatment, especially in rural areas, where 80% of counties have no practicing psychiatrists, according to a study from Health Affairs.

Given the widespread need for psychiatric services, a demand exists for psychiatric nurse practitioners (PNP) with the skills and education to provide them. These advanced practice nurses provide various mental health services, including diagnosing and treating mental health conditions, prescribing medication, and providing therapy. They’re vital to closing the gap in mental health care.

Those interested in filling a vital need in health care, with the added benefit of a job in demand, may want to explore the role of a psychiatric nurse practitioner and the skills necessary to succeed. Individuals should also consider the educational requirements the role entails, including seeking an advanced degree, to help address the psychiatric nurse practitioner shortage.

What Is a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners focus on providing mental health care to individuals, families, and communities. They treat patients of all ages and are often primary care providers for people with mental health conditions. These nursing professionals have expertise in identifying and treating people experiencing a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, or eating disorders.

Becoming a PNP involves many of the same steps as becoming a registered nurse, such as receiving a bachelor’s or an associate degree in nursing or a related field. Prospective nurse practitioners (NP) must also complete the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Nurses should note that while some states allow registered nurses to practice regardless of the state where they received their license, others don’t.

Those aiming for specialized nursing positions, such as psychiatric nurse practitioner, will need a graduate degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Earning an MSN typically takes three to four years with an associate degree, and approximately two to three years with a bachelor’s degree. In addition, qualifying as a nurse practitioner requires at least 500 hours of practical nursing experience.

To become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, nurses must also receive certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and obtain state-issued licensure. The ANCC exam assesses whether a nurse is prepared to engage with patients, develop accurate diagnoses, and provide proper treatment, while licensing standards differ by state.

What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Do?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are responsible for evaluating and diagnosing mental health disorders, developing treatment programs, and providing counseling and medication management to their patients. Education is also a significant aspect of a PNP’s role. They strive to educate patients and their family members, communities, and other health care providers about the importance of mental health and how it contributes to overall health and well-being.

While their responsibilities often overlap with that of psychiatrists, what psychiatric nurse practitioners do can vary depending on the scope of practice granted to nurse practitioners in the state where they practice. In states with full practice authority, PNPs have significant autonomy and can treat and diagnose patients without physician supervision. In states with reduced or restricted practice authority, PNPs require physician oversight for certain actions.

Ultimately, these nursing professionals concentrate on the holistic patient experience, working alongside their patients to create the best treatment plan possible. They inform patients and their families about available treatment options by describing the numerous forms of therapy and medication available. By educating patients about the risks and benefits involved in different treatments, they empower patients to make informed choices about their well-being, collaborating with them to establish tailored treatment plans that match their specific needs and objectives.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners work in various clinical and nonclinical environments such as hospitals or schools, or remotely via telehealth. As they expand into nontraditional venues, they’re able to improve access to mental health care and help reduce the shortage of available mental health workers.

Opportunities for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners

The psychiatric nurse practitioner shortage reflects a more general lack of adequate mental health care throughout the country. According to KFF, a nonprofit focused on national health issues, nearly 157 million Americans live in areas where there is a shortage of mental health care professionals.

Insufficient access to mental health care can have dire consequences.

  • The average delay between the onset of symptoms of a mental illness and intervention is approximately 11 years, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
  • Individuals with serious mental illness have higher mortality rates than the rest of the population, largely due to preventable medical conditions such as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, according to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.
  • Serious mental illness costs the U.S. nearly $200 billion annually in lost earnings, NAMI reports.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners can improve the lives of individuals and entire communities through their involvement in mental health care. They can examine, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders and provide much-needed support and care to underserved patients in rural or underserved areas. As holistic caregivers, psychiatric nurse practitioners also often consider the physical, emotional, and social factors that contribute to a patient’s mental health issues.

While the gap between the demand for mental health services and access to care is still wide, evidence suggests that PNPs are increasingly helping to shrink that gap. According to a September 2022 report in Health Affairs, the number of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners treating Medicare beneficiaries grew by 162% between 2011 and 2019. During that period, the percentage of mental health prescriber visits provided by PNPs increased from 12.5% to nearly 30%, exceeding 50% in rural areas with full practice authority.

As a result of this demand and the growing importance of mental health care, PNPs are often well compensated. According to Payscale, the median annual salary for psychiatric nurse practitioners was approximately $114,000 as of November 2022.

Overall demand for nurse practitioners is extremely high. Employment of NPs is expected to grow by 46% between 2021 and 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, adding nearly 113,000 new jobs.

Make a Difference in Mental Health

While the road to becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner is long, the profession has many benefits. Aside from the pay and breadth of opportunities due to the psychiatric nurse practitioner shortage, those who desire to help others will be able to provide a uniquely holistic approach to mental health care in various environments. To acquire the specialized knowledge and skills the role requires, individuals should seek out an advanced education.

Regis College’s online Master of Science in Nursing program provides aspiring PNPs an opportunity to develop the expertise for this in-demand role. The program offers a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner specialization, with courses such as Advanced Psychopharmacology and Theory and Practice of Contemporary Psychotherapies.

The online program allows students to take courses on their own schedule, enabling them to progress in their nursing careers and make the transition to exciting nurse practitioner roles. Find out how you can positively affect the mental health of those in need with Regis College.


Recommended Readings

Guide to Mental Health Screening in Schools

How Technology and Social Isolation May Affect Mental Health

What Impact Does Parental Mental Health Have on Children?


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

American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, “7 Things You Should Know About Mental Health Nursing

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, “Expanding Mental Health Care Services in America: The Pivotal Role of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses”

BMC Nursing, “Nurses’ Experiences of the Causes of Their Lack of Interest in Working in Psychiatric Wards: A Qualitative Study”

Fierce Healthcare, “Workforce of Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners More Than Doubled, Filling Unmet Gaps for Mental Health Care”

Health Affairs, “Trends in Mental Health Care Delivery by Psychiatrists and Nurse Practitioners in Medicare, 2011–19”

Indeed, “What Is a Psychiatric Mental Health Practitioner?”

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