How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

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 today encourage honest and open discussion of mental health.

As awareness increases, so too 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.

Nursing students or medical professionals who are curious about how to become a mental health nurse should consider pursuing advanced education, such as an online post-master’s certificate with a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) specialization.

What Does a Mental Health Nurse Do?

Working in a wide range of settings and with a broad base of patients, registered mental health nurses have a variety of responsibilities. They focus on the specific needs of their patients’ mental health by contributing to diagnoses and helping develop treatment plans. These nurses can educate patients about their conditions, monitor their health status, and help them manage their medications.

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.

Mental Health Nurse Job Description

What does a mental health nurse do on a day-to-day basis? A mental health nurse job description may include duties such as:

  • Working within a team to help coordinate patient care
  • Collecting information about the patient as part of their intake screening
  • Performing patient evaluations and triage
  • Assisting with patient case management
  • Educating patients and their families on self-care activities
  • Monitoring and assisting with psychotherapy
  • Providing aid during crisis intervention
  • Assisting patients in reaching their recovery goals

Medical professionals with a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner degree are considered advanced practice nurses, which means they can perform forms of patient care that other mental health nurses cannot. The role of a PMHNP includes additional responsibilities such as:

  • Providing psychotherapy to individuals, couples, groups, and families
  • Clinically supervising patients
  • Educating patients about preventive care
  • Leading integrative therapy interventions
  • Examining and diagnosing patients with acute and chronic illnesses
  • Ordering diagnostic tests and analyzing their results
  • Developing treatment plans for patients
  • Keeping relatives and caretakers informed about the patient
  • Prescribing medications
  • Providing treatment for acute and chronic conditions

A mental health nurse’s job description is primarily driven by their level of education and their experience. Work environment also plays a major role in what these professionals do on a day-to-day basis. For instance, mental health nurses who work at rehabilitation clinics will treat a different demographic of patients and confront a different set of problems compared to those who work at psychiatric centers.

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse in 4 Steps

Mental health nursing requires development of knowledge, cultivation of skills, and immersion into real-world care scenarios. There are several steps involved in becoming a mental health nurse, each of which advances the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to be successful in the role.

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

Mental health nurses must 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. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC), which confirms an RN has at least the minimum level required skills and knowledge to work as a mental health nurse.

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) must 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.

Benefits of Becoming a Mental Health Nurse

Becoming a mental health nurse has numerous benefits. The intimate level of care required to treat mental health conditions effectively can lead to deep bonds within the nurse-patient dynamic. Mental health nurses can take on an important role in their patients’ lives, and they’re able to share in the heightened feelings of gratification and satisfaction patients feel as they make progress.

Mental health nurses may also enjoy a greater level of creativity in their role than some other nurses. 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 individual needs. This can allow mental health nurses to choose from a wide range of treatment strategies as opposed to following a standardized plan.

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 Association, approximately one out of five U.S. adults will experience some form of mental illness. Further, the organization reports that 4.1% of adults will experience a serious mental illness, while 8.5% will have a substance abuse disorder. 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.

Working as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

PMHNPs assist patients with their mental health and have a greater level of responsibility than registered nurses. 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 full practice authority states, PMHNPs may 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 demonstrate a range of essential skills in their job performance. They are required to earn a degree or several degrees in the field to develop these skills. 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 Salary vs. PMHNP Salary

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 $70,800, according to March 2023 data from the compensation website Payscale.
  • PMHNPs earn a median salary of around $115,600, according to March 2023 data from Payscale.

When making the psychiatric nurse practitioner salary vs. mental health nurse salary comparison, it’s important to note that salaries can vary based on job location, years of experience, and other factors. Nurse practitioner positions are projected to grow 40% between 2021 and 2031, 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

How Nurse Practitioners Improve Access to Healthcare

Importance of Electronic Health Records in Nursing

Improving Access to Rural Health Care


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

American Nurses Credentialing Center, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC)

American Psychiatric Association, “What is Mental Illness?”

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

Chron, “Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Job Description”

Johnson & Johnson Nursing, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at a Glance

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