Becoming a Mental Health Nurse


Mental health nurse with a clipboard

Mental illness is an equal opportunity illness that affects people of all ages, races and income levels. Mental health nurses help patients who suffer from mental illness to recover their mental health so that they can live to their fullest potential.

Mental health nurses are experts in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders. They work as members of an interdisciplinary treatment team that provides well-rounded medical care for the whole person. With appropriate training, these professionals:

  • Evaluate patients’ mental health needs
  • Write and evaluate treatment plans
  • Deliver psychotherapy and other interventions
  • Provide personal and supportive care
  • Coordinate care with families, physicians and other caregivers
  • Prescribe medications

The responsibilities of a mental health nurse increase with education and experience. Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) provide personal care and dispense medications. Registered nurses (RNs) are trained to perform assessments and counsel patients and families. Mental health nurse practitioners perform many of the same duties as psychiatrists, including diagnosing conditions, conducting psychotherapy and prescribing medication. Some mental health nurses specialize in the treatment of adults, adolescents or children, or focus on a clinical area such as eating disorders. Others care for patients of all ages and conditions.

Regardless of specialization, mental health nurses help people of all degrees of disability make positive changes in their lives. Mental health is an important component of overall health and wellness. Through support, education and counseling, these professionals help patients to reclaim it.

Work Environment

Mental health nurses work in a variety of settings, including:

  • General and psychiatric hospitals
  • Substance abuse treatment programs
  • Home healthcare services
  • Community mental health agencies
  • Private practice

The schedules of mental health nurses vary. Nurses in inpatient facilities work rotating shifts that cover evening, night and weekend hours as well as holidays. Those in community agencies and private practice work regular business hours but may offer some extended hours for the convenience of working patients.

Mental health nurses spend most of the workday interacting with patients, families, colleagues and administrators. They generally work in clean, well-lit settings though some travel to patients’ homes. Hospital nurses spend a lot of time on their feet and must be comfortable lifting, bending and stooping.



Several career paths are available to mental health nurses:

  • LPNs complete a one-year training program at a community college or technical school.
  • RNs complete an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing.
  • Mental health nurse practitioners (APRN-PMHs) complete a master’s degree or doctorate in advanced practice nursing with a focus on psychiatry.

Visit our nursing degrees guide to learn all about the many undergraduate and graduate degree paths that nursing students can take.

The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and American Association of Colleges of Nursing list accredited nursing education programs on their websites.


All nursing education programs include extensive clinical experience. Upon completion of a degree program, RNs are able to pursue an optional one-year residency to enhance their skills. To specialize in the care of adults, children or adolescents, nurse practitioners must complete an additional supervised clinical experience.

Licensing and/or Certification

All nurses must be state-licensed in order to practice. For LPNs and RNs, this requires completion of a state-approved training program and a passing score on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Mental health nurse practitioners must be board certified in psychiatric nursing (PMHNP-BC) through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

Necessary Skills and Qualities

As caregivers to a vulnerable population, mental health nurses must be compassionate, empathetic, patient and nonjudgmental. Excellent interpersonal skills are needed to communicate effectively with patients, families and other professionals.

Because they often work with challenging people and those in emotional distress, mental health nurses must be emotionally stable with excellent self-management skills. Strong problem-solving abilities and critical thinking help them navigate emergencies and difficult situations. Mental health nurses must also be attentive to details, especially when prescribing or dispensing medications.

Opportunities for Advancements

Experienced mental health nurses often serve as managers or administrators of healthcare facilities and community agencies. Some leave the clinical setting to start private practices or teach nursing at the university level. Others serve as consultants within the healthcare, pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Opportunities for advancement increase with education and experience.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a mental health nurse, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.


The salary of a mental health nurse increases with education and experience:

  • LPNs earned salaries from $29,680 to $56,010 in 2010.
  • RNs earned anywhere from $44,190 to $95,130 in 2010.
  • The salary for nurses with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) ranged from $61,277 to $110,738. 
  • Those who hold a doctorate can expect to earn between $76,282 and $108,615.

Job Outlook

Employment of registered nurses is expected to grow by 26% (much faster than the average for all occupations) between 2010 and 2020. The aging of the baby boomer generation will increase the demand for mental health services in coming decades. During this time, more patients will require treatment for stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. The national shortage of psychiatrists is also increasing the demand for mental health nurse practitioners, particularly in rural areas.

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