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Becoming a Mental Health Nurse

What Does a Mental Health Nurse Do?

mental health nurse working with soldier

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. These 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, mental health nurses:

  • 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.

Workplace Details

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.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$101750
Texas
$70390
New York
$80830
Florida
$64630
Pennsylvania
$68770

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA

Median Salary: 
$55,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,870

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$43,240$57,670$77,370
Huntsville$41,840$56,800$75,450

ALASKA

Median Salary: 
$88,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $65,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $116,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$65,100$88,940$117,550
Fairbanks$69,190$98,120$119,580

ARIZONA

Median Salary: 
$71,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $52,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $96,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,500

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$52,850$73,400$97,630
Tuscon$52,510$67,590$82,510

ARKANSAS

Median Salary: 
$55,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 870

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$42,070$60,690$84,170
Fort Smith$39,910$52,140$63,430

CALIFORNIA

Median Salary: 
$100,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $64,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $147,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10,470

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$63,400$95,940$129,340
San Francisco Bay$83,120$132,970$167,920
San Diego$57,610$85,470$126,550
Sacramento$67,060$116,690$155,890

COLORADO

Median Salary: 
$68,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $95,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 33%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,350

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$51,510$70,580$97,080
Colorado Springs$51,430$63,590$88,590

CONNECTICUT

Median Salary: 
$76,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $100,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 990

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$55,130$76,020$97,630
Bridgeport$56,590$75,830$103,110
New Haven$57,470$78,720$105,440

DELAWARE

Median Salary: 
$71,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $53,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $93,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 420

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$54,470$72,460$93,860
Dover$52,740$64,500$84,490

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Median Salary: 
$79,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $103,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 380

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$53,890$76,030$101,360

FLORIDA

Median Salary: 
$62,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $46,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $82,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 8,110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$50,250$65,560$91,660
Orlando$43,490$61,570$79,250
Tampa$49,770$62,990$84,660
Jacksonville$48,910$61,610$79,810

GEORGIA

Median Salary: 
$63,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,980

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$47,500$67,010$82,160
Augusta$46,880$65,910$88,340

HAWAII

Median Salary: 
$92,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $63,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $119,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 400

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$63,930$93,970$120,600

IDAHO

Median Salary: 
$61,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,400

Job Growth Data Not Available

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$46,390$61,760$78,900

ILLINOIS

Median Salary: 
$67,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $45,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $99,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,970

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$51,580$73,220$103,790
Rockford$43,920$59,400$87,180

INDIANA

Median Salary: 
$57,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,510

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$43,290$61,450$81,840
South Bend$43,460$58,310$76,100
Fort Wayne$40,640$53,490$73,350

IOWA

Median Salary: 
$53,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,280

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$41,010$56,420$75,160
Cedar Rapids$39,730$50,730$74,600

KANSAS

Median Salary: 
$56,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 760

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$41,060$51,440$72,980
Kansas City$44,940$63,260$81,370

KENTUCKY

Median Salary: 
$58,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 36%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,670

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$44,330$61,510$78,730
Lexington$44,220$59,870$76,890

LOUISIANA

Median Salary: 
$59,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $83,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,910

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$49,930$66,140$99,220
Baton Rouge$42,650$56,830$78,160
Lafayette$40,670$55,480$80,510

MAINE

Median Salary: 
$62,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $46,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $85,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 510

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$49,850$64,470$91,370
Lewiston$45,100$63,890$78,040

MARYLAND

Median Salary: 
$72,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $53,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $97,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,250

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$53,920$72,460$98,440
Frederick$55,480$75,920$98,980

MASSACHUSETTS

Median Salary: 
$83,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $135,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,490

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$60,060$92,190$145,530
Worcester$52,460$82,700$142,480
Springfield$47,590$72,530$101,550

MICHIGAN

Median Salary: 
$65,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $50,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $89,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,370

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$52,500$69,600$105,020
Grand Rapids$48,130$60,180$76,730

MINNESOTA

Median Salary: 
$72,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $49,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $98,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,010

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$53,730$77,400$100,460
Rochester$41,210$59,810$94,640

MISSISSIPPI

Median Salary: 
$55,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,070

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$42,150$60,990$88,630
Gulfport$42,590$57,050$76,120

MISSOURI

Median Salary: 
$57,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,530

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$42,050$59,020$83,960
Kansas City$44,940$63,260$81,370

MONTANA

Median Salary: 
$60,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $81,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 450

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$51,200$62,670$88,330
Missoula$50,750$62,420$87,110

NEBRASKA

Median Salary: 
$58,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 840

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$43,460$59,630$80,340
Lincoln$42,500$56,230$75,400

NEVADA

Median Salary: 
$81,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $58,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $104,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 860

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$62,700$84,080$108,390
Reno$55,940$75,620$98,560

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Median Salary: 
$65,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $93,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 490

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$46,320$67,900$94,190
Nashua$46,310$63,890$91,400

NEW JERSEY

Median Salary: 
$79,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $57,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $102,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,000

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$58,110$81,250$104,130
Trenton$52,450$71,710$93,130

NEW MEXICO

Median Salary: 
$64,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $50,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $87,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 660

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$52,550$66,430$88,630
Las Cruces$27,720$60,700$92,420

NEW YORK

Median Salary: 
$78,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $52,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $111,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 7,450

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$62,140$86,520$116,630
Buffalo$50,970$70,090$93,740
Rochester$46,960$60,760$77,900
Albany$44,640$61,640$79,960

NORTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$58,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $43,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $79,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 4,190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$44,010$59,750$78,850
Raleigh$44,970$60,090$79,230
Greensboro$43,130$61,120$86,440
Winston - Salem$43,770$58,270$77,490

NORTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$57,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $43,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 400

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$43,820$58,380$76,530
Bismarck$43,580$57,070$73,580

OHIO

Median Salary: 
$61,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 4,830

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$52,280$65,220$80,050
Columbus$46,330$61,330$90,830
Cincinnati$47,490$62,580$81,990
Dayton$48,440$59,850$78,710

OKLAHOMA

Median Salary: 
$58,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$43,130$60,220$78,470
Tulsa$43,630$58,820$76,640

OREGON

Median Salary: 
$85,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $61,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $109,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,280

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$58,970$86,940$112,620
Salem$63,450$80,010$103,720

PENNSYLVANIA

Median Salary: 
$65,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $93,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 4,890

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$53,320$76,110$100,010
Pittsburgh$47,760$61,520$80,320
Harrisburg$51,160$64,360$92,930
Allentown$51,170$63,980$86,160

RHODE ISLAND

Median Salary: 
$76,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $98,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 450

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$55,000$76,050$99,370

SOUTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$59,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,600

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$42,380$57,960$77,620
Columbia$33,930$57,080$78,000
Charleston$49,680$65,020$92,470

SOUTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$53,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $74,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 420

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Rapid City$42,750$57,830$75,800

TENNESSEE

Median Salary: 
$56,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,440

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$41,930$58,810$78,640
Memphis$46,000$60,500$78,810
Knoxville$40,920$54,240$70,650
Chattanooga$41,680$56,130$74,340

TEXAS

Median Salary: 
$68,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $50,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $95,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10,820

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$52,170$71,920$96,640
Houston$55,040$76,670$98,900
San Antonio$45,920$65,450$89,960
Austin$51,570$66,340$86,640

UTAH

Median Salary: 
$59,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $79,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 33%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,150

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$46,020$61,730$81,490
Ogden$42,940$57,090$76,880

VERMONT

Median Salary: 
$62,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $91,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$63,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $43,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $90,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,380

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$43,130$61,350$79,450
Richmond$44,170$64,510$85,180

WASHINGTON

Median Salary: 
$77,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $52,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $110,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,470

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$55,410$80,960$113,850
Spokane$50,630$73,400$104,950

WEST VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$56,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 590

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$39,560$55,600$76,120
Charleston$41,380$55,920$75,860

WISCONSIN

Median Salary: 
$65,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $49,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $90,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,860

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$51,600$67,980$91,900
Madison$54,670$73,910$100,370

WYOMING

Median Salary: 
$60,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $81,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 210

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$47,920$64,100$88,730
Casper$40,880$57,560$77,510

(Click here to see interactive state-by-state information for licensed practical/vocational nurses or nurse practitioners.)

The salary of a mental health nurse increases with education and experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • LPNs earn a median salary of $43,170 per year
  • RNs earn anywhere from $46,360 to $101,630, with a median salary of $67,490
  • Nurse practitioners can expect to earn a median of $98,190 annually.

Employment of registered nurses is expected to grow by 16% (much faster than the average for all occupations) between 2014 and 2024, according to the BLS. 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.

Compare Salaries by City

New York City NY Median Pay

$86520 Per Year

$41.59 Per Hour

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$95940 Per Year

$46.12 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Mental Health Nurse

1

Gain the necessary education based on your goals.

Several career paths are available to mental health nurses, each with its own educational requirements:

  • LPNs complete a one-year training program at a community college or technical school
  • RNs complete a two-year associate degree, three-year diploma program, or four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing
  • Aspiring mental health nurse practitioners (APRN-PMHs) must earn an undergraduate degree and then go on to complete a master’s degree or doctorate in advanced practice nursing, with a focus on psychiatry. Their path begins by earning either an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Show Me Schools »

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.

2

Get licensed based on your chosen career path.

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). After that, for LPNs and RNs, careers can begin.

3

For RNs and aspiring APRNs, consider additional training.

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 prior to entering the workforce.

Though it isn’t mandatory, you may also want to consider gaining clinical experience prior to enrolling in graduate school, if your goal is to become a mental health nurse practitioner. Grad schools value candidates who have gained real-world experience.

4

For those who want to become mental health nurse practitioners, enter graduate school.

These advanced practice nurses must earn either a master’s or doctoral degree. The master’s degree typically requires two years to complete. When considering a doctoral degree, you could enroll in a “bridge” program that allows you to jump from bachelor’s degree to doctoral degree; these programs typically require three or four years. Alternately you could pursue the doctoral degree at a later time, after obtaining your master’s degree, in this case, your doctoral degree will require an extra 1-2 years to earn.

Your curriculum will be very similar whether you pursue a master’s or a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, with the doctoral degree giving added time to preparing students for leadership roles. The doctoral path also requires a research project, but many master’s degree programs enable students to complete these projects as well.

5

Gain more clinical training.

To specialize in the care of adults, children or adolescents, aspiring mental health nurse practitioners must complete additional supervised clinical experience.

6

Get licensed as a nurse practitioner.

Mental health nurse practitioners must be board certified in psychiatric nursing (PMHNP-BC) through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

7

Consider the possibilities for your career to evolve.

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.

Explore Degree Paths

CERTIFICATE IN PRACTICAL NURSING

about 1 year

These programs prepare you to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN), also known as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) in some states. Practical nurses perform basic care tasks under the supervision of a registered nurse or physician. They work in a variety of fields, including mental health.

Community colleges, technical colleges, and even some high school vocational centers offer training in practical nursing. The curriculum resembles the first year of an associate degree in nursing program. Expect to receive classroom, lab, and practical instruction in:

Anatomy and physiology

Study the structure and function of the human body.

Medical-surgical nursing

Practice caring for adults with common acute conditions.

Basic pharmacology

Learn to calculate dosages and administer medications to patients.

Intro to psychology

Gain a greater understanding of human thought and behavior.

When choosing a nursing program at any level, be especially alert for scam schools and diploma mills. It’s a good idea to talk to employers to find out which programs in your area do the best job of preparing students to practice.

At the very least, your school should be accredited by your state board of nursing. If you think you might someday want to continue on to graduate school, look for a program accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

DIPLOMA PROGRAM (RN)

2-3 years

Compared with LPNs, registered nurses (RNs) have more responsibility for planning and coordinating patient care. They perform diagnostic tests and procedures and help patients manage health conditions. There are three routes to becoming an RN: a diploma program, an associate degree, and a bachelor’s degree.

Diploma programs are hospital-based and take about 3 years to complete. The curriculum is very similar to an associate degree.

One downside of this pathway is that you don’t earn a degree at graduation. However, some diploma programs grant college credit or have articulation agreements with local BSN programs. This makes it easier to continue your education later.

In addition to the basic nursing classes listed in the LPN section, diploma students can expect to study:

Nutrition

Looks at the structure of nutrients like fat and carbohydrates and how the body converts them to energy.

Writing

Practice writing for different purposes, from creating a report to publishing research results.

Ethics

Examine common moral issues that arise in healthcare settings.

Developmental psychology

Looks at how human thought and behavior change with age.

When choosing a diploma program, look for one that’s respected by local employers. Verify that the program is state-approved. ACEN accreditation is desirable if you plan to continue on to the bachelor’s or graduate level.

ASSOCIATE DEGREE IN NURSING (ADN)

2-3 years

Diploma and ADN students undergo very similar training. The main difference: ADN programs are offered through community colleges, technical colleges, and universities. Graduates leave with a recognized degree, which allows them to later enroll in almost any BSN program.

In addition to the classes listed in the LPN and diploma sections, ADN students might study:

Community health

Learn to promote the health of specific groups such as school children, the homeless, and the elderly.

Family health

Practice caring for pregnant women and children of all ages.

Acute health alternations

Respond to emergent physical and psychiatric conditions with an emphasis on managing crisis situations.

Health assessment

Collect patient data through history and physical examination.

Before committing to an ADN program, make sure it’s respected by employers and approved by the state board of nursing. If your ultimate goal is to earn a bachelor’s or graduate degree, choose an ACEN-accredited school.

Some schools offer accelerated LPN-to-ADN bridge programs, which take 1 to 2 years to complete.

BACHELOR OF SCIENCE IN NURSING (BSN)

4 years for a first bachelor's

A BSN isn’t necessary to work as a mental health nurse, but it’s definitely preferred by many employers. It’s also helpful if you’re interested in leadership, research, teaching, working in community settings, or working for the federal government.

Compared to ADNs, BSNs are trained to perform more advanced procedures. Their education also emphasizes leadership, career development, and sociological aspects of health care. BSN programs provide students with opportunities to explore their areas of interest, including mental health nursing.

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In addition to the classes in the ADN curriculum, BSNs might take:

Evidence-based practice

Study the research process and how it guides patient care.

Health promotion across the lifespan

Learn how to help patients stay healthy at each life stage.

Informatics

Examine systems for gathering patient and practice data that can be used to guide care decisions.

Pathophysiology

Learn how common diseases impact body function.

Most BSN programs are offered through 4-year universities. Some students complete their prerequisites at a 2-year college before transferring into a BSN program.

Many BSN programs offer an accelerated track (1-2 years) for students who already hold a bachelor’s degree. Other pathways include LPN- and RN-BSN bridge programs.

When choosing a BSN program, look for one accredited by ACEN or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

MASTER OF SCIENCE IN NURSING (MSN)

2-3 years beyond the bachelor's level

A master’s degree is necessary if you want to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). In the mental health field, this usually means training as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).

PMHNPs have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to diagnosing and treating patients. In many states they can prescribe medication and even set up private practices.

MSN training combines classroom instruction and clinical experience. Some common master’s level courses:

Psychopharmacology

Learn how medications act on the nervous system to treat psychiatric disorders.

Group and family psychotherapy

Study and practice different therapeutic models used in group settings.

Mental health across the lifespan

Understand how the physical and social needs of mental health patients change with each life stage.

Child and adolescent mental health

Practice treating pediatric patients and their families.

Some schools offer accelerated bridge programs for ADNs and diploma-trained RNs who want to become nurse practitioners.

Post-master’s certificates in mental health nursing are designed for APRNs who trained in another specialty. These typically take 1-2 years to complete.

In most states, PMHNPs must be certified in order to practice. This requires graduation from a program approved by ACEN or CCNE.

DOCTOR OF NURSING PRACTICE (DNP)

1-2 years beyond the master's level

The DNP is the terminal (top) degree for RNs who practice clinically (rather than becoming a university professor or researcher).

DNPs are well prepared to take on high-level leadership and teaching roles within their organizations. They use their knowledge of health care systems to help make care safer, more effective, and more affordable.

It’s worth noting that in recent years, professional organizations have pushed to raise nurse practitioner entry requirements from an MSN to a DNP.

Some DNP programs are designed for MSNs. There are also BSN-DNP bridge programs, which take 3-4 years to complete.

At the doctorate level, expect to study subjects like:

Epidemiology

Use data and analytics to study the causes of diseases and health problems.

Assessing clinical outcomes

Learn different ways to evaluate the effectiveness of healthcare.

Health care policy

Study how the government shapes health care and how research impacts this process.

Transformational leadership

Apply leadership principles to help change health care systems.

Both ACEN and CCNE accredit DNP programs.

Keys to Success as a Mental Health Nurse

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Interpersonal skills

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.

Stability and self-control

Because they often work with challenging people and those in emotional distress, mental health nurses must be emotionally stable with excellent self-management skills.

Critical thinking

Strong problem-solving abilities and critical thinking help nurses navigate emergencies and difficult situations.

Attention to detail

This is something all nurses must possess of course, and mental health nurses are no exception. On top of providing care, these nurses may prescribe or dispense medications.

Additional Credentials

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners must be board certified to practice in most states. The American Nurses Credentialing Center administers the PMHNP-BC credential.

Some mental health nurses pursue interdisciplinary certifications in subjects like crisis work.

PMHNPs can also pursue certifications in their chosen therapy modality. (For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.)

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