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Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse

What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Do?

psychiatric patient and nurse

Mental illnesses are devastating disorders. Unfortunately, these diagnoses are not well understood by the public. Often those who have a mental illness are stigmatized as being “crazy”; millions suffer in silence. A psychiatric nurse is a registered nurse (RN) with expertise in mental illness. These nurses use their skills to help those with mental illness live fulfilling and productive lives. Nurses may help in mental health crisis intervention and therapy; aid in medication management; and even assist the patient in daily activities that are stressful.

Psychiatric nurses, like other nurses, conduct assessments and interviews. However, the focus is on the patient’s feelings, emotions and reactions to the environment. A psychiatric nurse evaluates the patient’s symptoms, daily living habits, patterns of illness, support and family life. Nurses can work with all age groups and may address a wide variety of disorders.

Psychiatric nurses treat many disorders, including:

  • Anxiety, such as panic disorder or phobia
  • Mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder
  • Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias
  • Autism and Asperger’s disease

Along with a team of other health care professionals, the psychiatric nurse helps to develop a plan of care for the patient. The psychiatric nurse, in particular, helps the patients and their families to understand and better manage the illness. This may include education on the symptoms and medications used as well as therapy and the development of new skills to cope with stress and daily activity.

Psychiatric nurses make a real difference in the lives of those who suffer from mental illness. They give patients the tools to work through the complications of their disorder, helping patients return to their daily lives, jobs and families. Compassionate, empathetic people with good listening and communication skills may find a very rewarding career path in psychiatric nursing.

Workplace Details

Psychiatric nurses work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Geriatric and medical hospitals
  • Addiction and substance abuse centers
  • Home health agencies
  • Community medical centers
  • Correctional institutions
  • Outpatient mental health clinics
  • Schools serving people with emotional and cognitive disorders

Psychiatric nurses typically work an 8- or 12-hour shift. These nurses are on their feet most of the time and are required to bend, stoop and lift to help patients in their daily activities. Sometimes, the nurse works individually with patients, but he or she may also work with groups of patients in a therapy session. Psychiatric nurses can be called upon to assist patients who are upset or behaving dangerously.

Inpatient facilities, such as hospitals, require nurses to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays. Outpatient facilities such as community health centers need nurses to work normal business hours and may have an on-call service on the weekends.

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 nurse practitioners.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics salaries for psychiatric nurses (as registered nurses) range from $46,360 to $101,630 depending upon experience, education and location. Median annual wage is $67,490.

Jobs for registered nurses are expected to grow 16% though 2024, according to the BLS, which is higher than average growth. This growth is because of the aging population and the increased needs for health services. Also, the number of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is rising, creating a demand for psychiatric nurses.

Turnover among psychiatric nurses tends to be high. However, many facilities offer incentives such as flexible work hours and tuition reimbursement as well as sign-on bonuses.

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 Psychiatric Nurse

1

Choose which type of nurse to become.

There are several types of nurses who work in a mental health facility. They include licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), advanced practice nurses (APRNs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs). However, only the RN and APRN are trained to assess, treat and counsel patients. APRNs can go a step further to diagnose and prescribe medications.

If you’re a practical nurse or CNA, and you’re interested in mental health nursing, there are many “bridge” programs designed to help LPNs/LVNs and CNAs fill in curricular gaps, earn an ADN or BSN, and obtain RN licensure. After a nurse has qualified as an RN, the American Nurses Credentialing Center provides certification for psychiatric-mental health specialists.

2

Attain a bachelor's degree in nursing.

RNs typically train for two years to obtain an associate degree or four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree. However, many facilities require a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Also keep in mind, if you think you might pursue an advanced degree later, that those programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission.

Show Me Schools »

Undergraduate RN education includes classroom lectures and hands-on work in various areas of nursing. Some schools offer a bridge program from an associate to a bachelor’s degree. Other schools offer accelerated programs for students who hold a degree in another field.

3

Become licensed as an RN.

Nurses must be board-certified to practice by the state where they are working. Each state has a board of nursing with criteria for certification. To get an RN license, the candidate must attend a state-approved school and pass the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX.

4

Pursue continuing education.

Newly licensed RNs may complete a one-year residency, if offered, to enhance skills. All nurses are required to complete a specified number of continuing education (CE) hours yearly and submit those hours when renewing their RN license.

5

Earn a graduate degree from an accredited school.

Having become an RN, aspiring nurse practitioners then get a master’s or doctorate degree in a specialized area of nursing. This can take an additional two to three years.

When searching for a nursing school to attend, it is important to choose one that is accredited. Both the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) offer searchable program directories on their websites. Make sure that the program is accredited by a national nursing accreditation association such as the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE – the accrediting arm of AACN) or ACEN. The state board of nursing should approve the school as well.

Accredited nursing schools are required to have students complete a specific number of clinical training hours in various settings. There is also a classroom requirement for lectures and testing.

6

Become certified as a psychiatric mental health nurse.

Licensed RNs working in psychiatry or mental health can obtain certification as Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse (PMHN) through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Again the candidate must pass an examination and demonstrate work experience as well as expertise in the field of mental health nursing.

Certification for psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists is also offered by the ANCC. The certification you choose will depend upon the populations you work with (adults and children, or adults only) and your academic preparation.

7

Consider opportunities for advancement.

Experienced psychiatric nurses may move into management or administrative positions, such as unit manager or director of nursing. These positions often require a master’s degree as well as leadership skills, good judgment, excellent communication and negotiation skills. Nurse leaders also need to work well with others and be motivators for the nursing staff.

Some psychiatric nurses pursue advanced practice degrees and certifications as an APRN. An APRN can make diagnoses and, where allowed, prescribe medications as well as hold therapy sessions. These nurses can work in hospitals, community centers, private practices and other areas to serve as primary care providers.

Explore Degree Paths

Many colleges and universities offer nursing degrees, but not all of these programs are nationally accredited. A program has to meet certain standards before it can be granted accreditation either through the CCNE (Collegiate Council of Nursing Education) or ACEN (Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing). It is much harder to find a job and continue your education if you graduate from a non-accredited nursing program.

ASSOCIATE DEGREE

2-3 years initial study

An associate degree in nursing will prepare you to take the RN-NCLEX and work in many different settings, including hospital environments. ADN/ASN programs, which are offered at technical and community/regional colleges, draw students with diverse backgrounds, including working professionals who are pursuing new careers. Some associate degree programs are particularly well-regarded in their local healthcare community and have a reputation for producing able graduates, so do your homework when you are shopping different programs. However, it’s also sometimes the case that mental health facilities hire only RNs with a bachelor’s degree. If you’re interested in a career in psychiatric nursing, you’ll want to find out whether a program offers more than one course in mental health, and also if nursing students have opportunities for clinical rotation in psychiatric units at a local hospital or in a mental health clinic.

Some of the courses you can expect to take include:

Caring for the acutely ill patient

Nursing skills and safety practices for hospital settings; this course and others like it build on techniques taught in foundational nursing classes.

Nursing and the developing family

A course focusing on care of women and infants during pregnancy and after childbirth.

Caring for the mental health patient

Students begin learning how to take a history, assess and prescribe treatment for patients with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

Pharmacology in nursing

Provides students with an introduction to common prescription medications and their modes of action.

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

The BSN is a traditional four-year college degree, usually divided into pre-professional work—including courses in writing, social science, and math—and the nursing curriculum, beginning in the second or third year of study. Nursing students also take organic chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and microbiology courses. A bachelor’s (baccalaureate) degree program serves as preparation for hospital practice and graduate nursing study; it serves as the gateway to leadership roles in the nursing profession.

Show Me Schools »

Your nursing coursework will likely include:

Acute and chronic care (2+ semesters, with clinical practicum)

Students develop their suite of nursing techniques and practice skills in a variety of hospital and clinic settings.

Human growth and lifespan development

Students examine the biological processes characteristic of each stage in human development.

Pediatric nursing

Nursing care of children is introduced in a well-family context.

Psychiatric/mental health nursing

A course that introduces students to theoretical and ethical issues surrounding mental health nursing, while giving them opportunities to practice clinical skills.

An accelerated BSN (ABSN) degree program may be an option for you if you have already earned a bachelor’s or higher degree in another field. ABSN programs generally have high admissions standards, so your eligibility will depend on your undergraduate GPA and background in science and math.

MASTER'S OR DOCTORAL DEGREE

2 years, MSN, full-time; 2.5-3 years, DNP, full-time

For certified psychiatric RNs who want to extend their scope of practice, becoming an advanced practice nurse – in this case, a mental health/psychiatric nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist – is one route to greater autonomy and responsibility in assessing, diagnosing and treating mental illness, as well as leading and educating other nurses.

Nurse practitioners have earned at least one graduate degree in nursing (master’s or doctorate in nursing practice) and qualified for an advanced credential (PMHNP-BC; psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner, board certified). Clinical nurse specialists are often nurse practitioners who obtain additional certification that attests to their ability to educate their colleagues; the CNS role is critical to process improvement in hospital settings.

Advanced practice nursing can increase your hiring potential and allow you to work in a wider variety of settings, ranging from hospitals and outpatient clinics to colleges and universities, government agencies, consulting and private practice. Graduate nursing programs require that applicants hold the BSN degree, so this is something to keep in mind as you develop plans. Of course, you can also “bridge the gap” between an AD-RN and BSN-RN by entering an RN-to-BSN program after you’ve begun practice as a nurse.

Course offerings vary by program, but most if not all APRNs with psychiatric focus take courses similar to the following:

Mental health issues for APRNs

Building on prior professional training, students acquire new expertise in diagnosis and mental-health therapies.

Adolescent health and development

Students focus on physical, behavioral, and cognitive changes associated with adolescence, including mood disorders and suicidality.

Advanced pharmacology

A course that gives RNs a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of action of different classes of medication.

Advanced pathophysiology

Nurses study the biological processes that underlie the symptoms and progress of physical disease.

Keys to Success as a Psychiatric Nurse

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Empathetic

Aspiring psychiatric nurses should be compassionate and have empathy for people who are living with mental illness.

Self-aware

Nurses also need to have good self-awareness and maturity to support patients without feeling overwhelmed by the patients’ problems.

Helpful

Psychiatric nurses need to be “people persons” who enjoy interaction and helping others through their problems.

Collaborative

They also rely on excellent communication skills and the ability to collaborate in order to work effectively within a medical team.

A problem solver

Quick thinking and the ability to problem-solve are additional skills that psychiatric nurses need. They can be called upon in emergencies with patients who have destructive behaviors and emotional crises.

Detail-oriented

Psychiatric nurses need to be detail-oriented and organized, especially when working with medications and documentation.

A strong communicator

The majority of the nurse’s time is spent using therapeutic communication and listening skills to help patients and families understand and learn how to cope with a diagnosis of mental illness.

Kelley Madick, PMHNP

Kelley Madick became a family psychiatric nurse practitioner in 2008. She currently teaches nursing at Kaplan University. Kelley writes various continuing education articles for nursing and has been published in nursing journals.

Kelley earned her RN degree from the Huron School of Nursing in 2006. While working as a psychiatric nurse in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Kelley continued her education at the University of Phoenix and received a master’€™s degree in nursing. She has worked at inpatient mental health facilities as well as in community mental health programs. She has also worked in private practice and home care. Kelley specialized in child and adolescent psychiatry, but has also worked on dementia units and in acute care.

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