Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are in high demand in the United States. There are many reasons for this, including legislation that guarantees insurance coverage for mental health conditions, a severe shortage of psychiatric mental health professionals, and a large number of psychiatrists who are retiring from the profession.
The psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) occupation is a quickly growing specialty, and research from Medicare projects this trend will continue for some time. Nursing students who are wondering what a PMHNP is — and who are interested in pursuing a career in this field — would do well to explore a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner specialization.
What Is a PMHNP?
PMHNPs are advanced practice registered nurses who specialize in diagnosing, treating, and managing mental health and psychiatric disorders. They provide various services, including conducting psychiatric evaluations, prescribing medication, and providing psychotherapy.
PMHNPs differ from psychiatrists in a few key ways, including their education and training. PMHNPs have a nursing education and then go on to receive specialized training in psychiatric and mental health care. Psychiatrists have a medical degree, such as a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), and specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness.
PMHNPs and psychiatrists also have different scopes of practice. PMHNPs typically provide care within a collaborative model, working closely with other health care professionals such as psychologists, social workers, and primary care providers. On the other hand, psychiatrists often work independently and are trained to provide a broader range of services, including diagnostic testing and medication management.
PMHNP Job Description
PMHNPs are specialized nursing professionals with an expanded scope of practice that allows them to provide mental health care. As advanced practice registered nurses (APRN), PMHNPs work in various settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, community health centers, and private practices.
A PMHNP’s job description involves providing psychotherapy and counseling services to help patients manage mental health conditions and improve their overall well-being. They may prescribe medication as well as educate patients and their families about mental health conditions, treatment options, and strategies for managing symptoms and improving quality of life. PMHNPs also advocate for patients and their families to receive proper mental health care, regardless of background or socioeconomic status.
What Does a PMHNP Do?
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners often intersect with the roles of psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists. While all these professionals conduct psychotherapy, only PMHNPs and psychiatrists may prescribe medication, and only psychiatrists are trained to conduct psychological testing.
Although what PMHNPs do can vary depending on the setting and context in which they work, their primary duties typically include:
- Assessing the mental health needs of patients
- Providing primary care for patients
- Diagnosing psychiatric conditions
- Working with patients of all ages, from children to seniors
- Prescribing and administering medication
- Creating and managing treatment plans
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are found in several mental health specialties, such as:
- Adolescent care to geropsych (senior/elderly) care
- Chronic condition management and diagnosis
- Combined physical and mental health services
- Emergency services
- Military care
- Nicotine addiction services
- Recovery services
- Substance abuse care
The American Psychiatric Nurses Association regulates the PMHNP discipline. According to the organization, state regulations determine whether to recognize these caregivers as nurse practitioners (PMHNP) or clinical nurse specialists (PMHCNS). Overall, NPs (nurse practitioners) frequently act as primary care providers, while CNSs (clinical nurse specialists) typically practice administrative oversight or psychotherapy.
Currently, NPs are able to prescribe medication anywhere in the United States — though in some states, an NP’s prescriptive authority is dependent on physician oversight — while this service varies by state for CNS practitioners. Each state enforces different regulations regarding what services mental health nurse practitioners deliver.
How to Become a PMHNP
Individuals asking “What is a PMHNP?” should understand the process of becoming an advanced practice registered nurse. Before they can become a PMHNP, a nursing professional must first earn a nursing degree through either a two-year associate program, a three-year hospital-based diploma program, or a four-year university bachelor’s degree program. Most nurses earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) before taking the NCLEX-RN exam and becoming registered nurses.
After earning a BSN or other nursing degree, nurses can earn a master’s degree in the field, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Ideally, students should pursue an MSN degree that offers a specialization that aligns with their career goals, such as one that offers a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program.
PMHNP Salary and Career Outlook
Due to the vital nature of their work, and the extensive education and training involved, PMHNPs typically earn generous salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), NPs earned a median annual wage of $120,680 in 2021.
Specific salaries for PMHNPs can vary based on several factors. These include job location, type of facility, education, experience, and certification. According to the compensation website Payscale, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of approximately $115,600 as of March 2023.
Additionally, the nurse practitioner job outlook in the psychiatric mental health field is expected to be very strong in the coming years. Government medical officials forecast a severe shortage of mental health professionals over the next few decades. In the past, NPs assisted physicians in extending community mental health service delivery. Today, due to the mental health professional shortage, nurses provide primary mental health care in several states.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment of nurse practitioners will grow 46% from 2021 through 2031, adding nearly 113,000 new jobs.
The State of the Mental Health Field
In the United States, mental health practitioners are in short supply, while the demand for mental health services is expanding. Many health care plans provide a means for patients to receive critical mental health services. Additionally, reforms require insurance providers to deliver coverage for mental health conditions that is equivalent to the protection afforded for other medical needs. This requirement, outlined in the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, is a supplement to an act of the same name mandated in 1996. That law requires insurance companies to provide lifetime benefits for mental health that are equivalent to the ceiling costs of other medical care benefits.
These guidelines — which regulate co-pays, deductibles, and office visitations — are important, because almost 1 in 5 American citizens seek mental health treatment annually. Largely due to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Acts of 1996 and 2008, there is an increase in patients pursuing treatment for mental illnesses.
Furthermore, increased media attention has lessened the stigma attached to mental illness. Because of this shift in societal opinion, more individuals are seeking mental health assistance. However, there are now more patients than practicing caregivers. As a result, psychiatric specialists are needed across the country.
Rural communities, where mental health services are scant, have a particularly high demand for PMHNPs. To remedy this, some PMHNPs opt to deliver service in clients’ homes. In these underserved communities, mental health nurses help lower the barriers that can preclude patients from seeking treatment, such as a lack of access to reliable transportation and limited awareness of health and wellness.
Factors Contributing to Shortage
The dwindling pool of psychiatrists continues to exacerbate the labor shortage in the mental health field. More than 60% of all psychiatrists are near or over the age of 55, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, indicating that fewer professionals will be available as they approach retirement age. Additionally, a decreasing number of medical students are pursuing psychiatry training, and within the psychiatry field, fewer students are completing their residencies.
Mental health talent is not dispersed evenly throughout the United States. Rural communities experience the worst shortages. All of these combined circumstances create a newly recognized critical need for mental health professionals throughout the U.S.
The Future of PMHNPs
Despite an increase in mental health nurse practitioners serving as primary care providers, health care advocates still foresee an acute talent shortage among psychiatric professionals. According to 2021 data from USAFacts, 37% of the population — an estimated 122 million people — live in areas with a shortage of mental health service providers. With a growing number of individuals seeking aid for mental health conditions, this situation is growing into a national crisis.
Mental health conditions severely affect patients, caregivers, insurers, and families, and they are the leading source of disability claims. To fill the expanding need for services, many more psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners must enter the field.
Pursue an Advanced Nursing Degree
The demand for mental health care in America is rapidly growing, outpacing the existing supply of mental health providers. As a result, the industry is increasingly turning to PMHNPs to fill this dire need. With America’s mental health needs steadily increasing, employment opportunities in this field will likely continue to expand over the next several decades.
Individuals exploring what a PMHNP is and whether the role aligns with their career aspirations should consider the benefits of the Regis College online Master of Science in Nursing. The program’s psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner specialization can help you develop your communication and therapeutic skills, expertise in behavioral sciences, and emotional intelligence.
Learn how Regis College can prepare you to join the ranks of an increasingly vital health care role.