Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse


Reviewed By Kelley Madick, PMHNP

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. A nurse 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, 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. These professionals 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.

Work Environment

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 time and are required to bend, stoop and lift to help patients in their daily activities. However, the majority of their 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. 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 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including holidays. Outpatient facilities such as community health centers work normal business hours and may have an on-call service on the weekends.



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.

RNs typically train for two years to obtain an associate degree or four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree. However, most facilities require a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Training 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.

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 five 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. 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.

Licensing and Certification

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.

An experienced psychiatric nurse can also 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.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Aspiring psychiatric nurses should be compassionate and have empathy for people who are living with mental illness. Nurses also need to have good self-awareness and maturity to support patients without feeling overwhelmed by the patients’ problems.

Psychiatric nurses need to be “people people” who enjoy interaction and helping others through their problems. They also rely on excellent communication skills and the ability to collaborate in order to work effectively within a medical team.

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.

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

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.

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

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Registered Nurse Employment Data

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

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


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics salaries for psychiatric nurses (as registered nurses) range from $45,880 to $98,880 depending upon experience, education and location. Median annual wage is $66,640.

Jobs for registered nurses are expected to grow 19% through 2022, 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, those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are 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. 

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