What is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are in high demand in the United States. There are many reasons why this is so, including legislation that guarantees insurance coverage for mental health conditions, a severe shortage of psychiatric mental health professionals, and a large population of psychiatrists who are retiring from the profession.

The PMHNP occupation is a quickly growing specialty in the country, and research from Medicare projects this trend to continue in the near future. Nursing students who are wondering what a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner is — and who are interested in pursuing a career in this field — can earn a post-master’s certificate with a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner specialization.

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. Universal health care provides a means for many 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 medicinal needs. The requirement, outlined in the Mental Health and Addiction Parity 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 other medical care benefit ceilings.

These guidelines — which regulate co-pays, deductibles, and office visitations — are important, because almost one-in-five American citizens seek mental health treatment annually. Largely due to the Mental Health and Addiction Parity Acts of 1996 and 2008, there is an increase in patients pursuing treatment for mental illnesses.

Additionally, increased media attention has lessened the stigma attached to mental illness. Because of this opinion shift, more individuals seek mental health assistance. However, there are now more patients than practicing caregivers. As a result, psychiatric specialists are in high demand. Health care organizations put forth considerable effort to train and recruit individuals in the field. Despite this, the discipline suffers from a talent shortage.

Factors Contributing to Shortage

The dwindling psychiatrist talent pool exacerbates the shortage in the field. To put this in perspective, the number of physicians in all specialties rose nearly 50% between 1995 and 2015, yet the psychiatrist pool increased by only a little over 10%. Physician supply outpaced the population by almost 10%, but psychiatrist supply lagged behind by almost 25%.

Additionally, almost 70% of all psychiatrists are at or over the typical retirement age for the profession. A decreasing number of medical students pursue psychiatry training, and within the psychiatry field, fewer students complete their residencies. The average medical student spends one-and-a-half to two-hundred-thousand dollars to earn a degree. Health care related education is among the most expensive, and psychiatry is among the lowest paid physician practices.

Currently, insurance companies report spending only around five-and-a-half percent of funds for mental health treatment, which falls disastrously short of demand. This minimal expenditure has caused analysts to underestimate the need for mental health treatment for some time.

Mental health talent is not dispersed evenly throughout the United States. Rural communities experience the worst shortages. These combined circumstances create a newly recognized critical need for mental health professionals across the country.

To fill the psychiatric provider shortage, the medical community enlists mental health nurse practitioners. But what is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner? These professionals deliver mental health services to individuals, families, and communities. They establish, organize, institute, and appraise mental health services.

Roles and Responsibilities

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners often intersect with the roles of psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists. While all individuals practicing these disciplines conduct psychotherapy, only PMHNPs and psychiatrists may prescribe medication, and only psychiatrists train to conduct psychological testing. Prospective nurses often ask what a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner is and what are the responsibilities? The following are the primary duties of PMHNPs.

  • Assess the mental health needs of patients
  • Provide primary care for patients
  • Diagnose psychiatric conditions
  • Work with patients of all ages, from children to seniors
  • Prescribe and administer medication
  • Create and manage treatment plans

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are found in several mental health specialties.

  • 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 (PMHNPs) or clinical nurse specialists (PMHCNSs). Overall, NPs frequently act as primary care providers, while CNSs typically practice administrative oversight or psychotherapy. Currently, NPs are able to prescribe medication anywhere in the United States, 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 Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Individuals asking “what is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?” should understand the process of becoming an advanced practice registered nurse. Before becoming a PMHNP, a nursing professional must first earn a nursing degree from either a two-year associate program, three-year hospital-based diploma program, or 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). After completing their credit hours and clinicals, nursing students can go on to earn a post-master’s certificate in their specialty. Students can choose from family, pediatrics, psychiatric mental health, women’s health, and adult-gerontology care.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Career Outlook

The job growth in the psychiatric mental health field outpaces that of all U.S occupations, including those in any medical profession. 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 care in several states.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job opportunities for nurse practitioners to grow 28% through 2028. The BLS predicts there will be 16,900 new openings across the U.S. every year until 2028.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Salary

Salaries for psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners in the PMHNP field vary based on job location, type of facility, education, experience, and certification. However, according to the BLS, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners earn an annual median salary of $115,800.

As the medical field shifts its attention toward community health, service delivery is changing among care providers. Because nurses spend more time with activities involving direct patient contact, they play a central role in this shift. Rural communities, where mental health services are scant, have a 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.

Answer the Call

Medicare forecasts that an additional eight million citizens will enroll for services under universal health care, in addition to the two million citizens already covered. While mental health advocates view this as a positive outcome, they worry that the medical community cannot meet the nation’s caregiving needs.

Despite an increase in mental health nurse practitioners as primary care providers, health care advocates still foresee an acute talent shortage among psychiatric professionals. To date, almost 80% of all counties in the U.S report a shortage of prescribing 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. They are the number one source of disability claims. To fill the expanding critical need for services, many more psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners must enter the field.

Pursue an Advanced Nursing Degree

Many different factors work to make the psychiatric mental health nursing practice one of the fastest growing fields in the United States. It is a challenge for the medical community as a whole to meet the growing job demand. As a result, it turns to PMHNPs to fill this dire need. With America’s mental health needs steadily increasing, it is unlikely that employment opportunities in this field will moderate over the next several decades.

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners play a significant role in the modern health care system. If you are asking “what is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner?” a prudent first step is to explore the benefits of earning an advanced nursing degree. The program can help you develop your communication and therapeutic skills, expertise in behavioral sciences, and emotional intelligence.

By pursuing an online post-master’s certificate from Regis College, you can learn how to assess, diagnose, manage, and treat mental illness in a variety of populations — and help fill a critical health care role for our nation.

Recommended Readings

Career Outlook: The Mental Health Nurse
The High Importance and Demand of Psychiatric Nurses
What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Do?


American Psychiatric Nurses Association, “Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses”
Digestive Disease Week, “7 Things You Should Know About Mental Health Nursing”
Health Careers, “Mental Health Nurse”
The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, Table of Contents
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners