Become a Psychiatric Nurse
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Psychiatric Nurse Overview

  • What You Will Do: Provide care for the people with functional and organic mental health disorders, working with a healthcare team that includes psychiatrists and other health care professionals.
  • Where Will You Work: Most psychiatric nurses work in mental health clinics, in-patient facilities, or a private psychiatric practice.
  • Employment Projections: Nursing is expected to be the fastest-growing professions, with growth projected at 16% – 23%.
  • How Much Will I Earn: The average annual salary for professional nurses is $68,450; factors such as level of degree, specialty certification, geographical location and level of experience will affect salary.
  • Requirements to Become One: Become a registered nurse; complete an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing, then obtain licensure as a professional registered nurse by passing the NCLEX-RN examination.

Steps to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

  • Earn Your RN: You must earn an RN degree from an accredited associate degree or bachelor’s degree program. It is important to note that the BSN degree may provide more opportunities for advancement, and may be required by some employers. Learn about RN to BSN degree programs.
  • Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam: After completed an accredited program, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain licensure to practice nursing.
  • Gain nursing experience: You must have a minimum of 2 years full-time experience as a registered nurse before seeking specialty certification.
  • Obtain additional training: Eligibility for certification includes a criterion of 30 hours of related continuing education.
  • Obtain Psychiatric Nurse Certification: Although certification is not a requirement for psychiatric nurses, the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers a registered nurse – board certified (RN – BC) credential in psychiatric/mental health nursing.

What is a Psychiatric Nurse?

Psychiatric nurses, also referred to as mental health or behavioral nurses, specialize in providing care for people receiving treatment for functional or organic mental health disorders. Organic disorders are those related to a specific cause, such as damage to the brain as a result of illness or trauma. With functional disorders, the underlying cause is typically unknown, that is, there is no known damage to the brain, even though there are observable symptoms. Mental health disorders that may be encountered include, in part, personality disorders, depression, schizophrenia, addictions, eating disorders, or dementia. A psychiatric nurse may further concentrate on a sub-specialty, such as working with a specific population (women, the elderly, children, etc.), or a particular type of disorder, such as eating disorders, or depression. Psychiatric nurses participate in assessment and diagnosis of patients with mental health disorders. They develop the plan of care and monitor patient responses to treatment, providing a safe and secure environment. The ability to participate in crisis intervention strategies is an essential skill. Psychiatric nurses need to be able to work with patients’ families, providing support and education. They may be required to lead group therapy sessions or work with a support group.

How Do I Become a Psychiatric Nurse?

The first step toward becoming a psychiatric nurse is to become a Registered Nurse (RN), earning an associate or Bachelor of Science (BSN) degree from an accredited nursing program. It is important to note that the BSN degree is often preferred and may be required by some employers. Opportunities for advancement are increased with the BSN degree, as well. After graduation, you must obtain RN licensure by taking the NCLEX-RN examination in your state. See our NCLEX study guides.

The next step is to obtain a minimum of 2 years experience as a professional nurse, and to seek additional training related to psychiatric nursing. Continuing education should focus on psychiatric therapies, dealing with challenging behaviors, developing therapeutic relationships, and the administration of psychiatric medications.

While certification is not a requirement, the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) does offer a registered nurse – board certified (RN – BC) credential in psychiatric/mental health nursing. Certification may be required by some employers. Eligibility requires:

  • Current, active professional nursing licensure
  • 2 or more years of full-time practice as an RN
  • A minimum of 2000 hours experience as a psychiatric/mental health nurse within the past 3 years.
  • Completing 30 hours of related continuing education activities within the past 3 years.

Certification, valid for 5 years, is awarded by presenting a portfolio, completing an online application, and passing the certification exam.

Where Do Psychiatric Nurses Typically Work?

Psychiatric nurses typically work in mental health clinics, in-patient facilities, or with a private psychiatric practice, but may also work in other venues such as hospitals, community clinics, schools, long-term care agencies, or correctional facilities.

How Much Do Psychiatric Nurses Earn?

Nursing, in general, is identified as one of the fastest growing professions in the US in terms of salary, with a projected growth of 16% or higher, much higher than the national average. Nursing specialty certification can increase earnings significantly; Salaries are generally higher in urban areas, however, the cost of living is typically higher, as well. In addition, bachelor’s prepared nurses tend to earn higher salaries than nurses with associate degree in nursing. The median annual Registered Nurse salary is 68,450, but the range of potential salary can vary, depending on degrees and certifications held, type of employment, and geographical location. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the top five states for general nursing salaries are (range 88,770 – 102,700);

  • California
  • Hawaii
  • District of Columbia
  • Massachusetts
  • Oregon

Psychiatric Nurse Education

Additional specialty education for psychiatric nurses at the undergraduate degree level largely consists of continuing education activities, such as professional conferences, in-service presentations or through professional organizations. For example, the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA) provides free continuing education programs for APNA members. An added option is seeking an advanced practice role as a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist (PMH-APRN). This involves earning an advanced degree, either at the master’s degree or doctoral degree in nursing. The top 10 Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner programs are:

See a list of all Psychiatric Nursing Nurse Practitioner programs.

What is a Typical Psychiatric Nursing Curriculum?

At the undergraduate degree level, the overall focus for continuing education concerns;

  • psychiatric therapies
  • dealing with challenging behaviors
  • developing therapeutic relationships
  • administration of psychiatric medications, including indications, action, side effects, adverse effects, and correct dosage.

Curricula for Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner programs include;

  • neurophysiology
  • psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy, group/family therapy
  • psychopharmacology and medication management
  • biopsychosocial assessment and diagnosis
  • complex psychiatric illnesses

The  Role of Psychiatric Nursing in the Nursing Shortage

The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that employment for nurses will increase at a rate of 16% by 2024. There is a national shortage of nurses in general related to the Baby Boomer population entering retirement, and the increased health needs of the growing aging population. It is projected that the South and West will be hardest hit by the nursing shortage. The 12 states expected to have the most acute shortages are; Florida, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico.

Find a Top Ranked RN Program Near You

We went directly to each state board of nursing to find, report and rank the best Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) programs and the best Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degrees.

Just as there is an increasing demand for nurses, in general, the need and demand for psychiatric nurses is increasing. This is due, in part, to the aging population, as the incidence of cognitive illness is higher among the elderly.

Psychiatric Nursing Resources

References

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