Is a Career as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Right for You?

Every year, the United States ranks among the countries with the highest rates of mental health problems. Today, about one in five people in the United States suffer from a mental illness.

And yet, unfortunately, there is a shortage of mental health providers among the general population, and perhaps your local area. If you are passionate about working with mental health, and you are interested in working to increase the standard of living for an often marginalized group that today represents 20 percent of American society, this might be a career for you to consider.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners have the important responsibility of assessing, diagnosing, and treating the mental health problems of individuals and families, and identifying the trends in mental health issues within entire communities. These responsibilities are especially important due to both the increase in demand for mental health treatment and the difficulty of access due to a lack of psychiatric health professionals in today’s workforce.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are trained in providing psychotherapy and other interventions, and they are able to prescribe psychoactive medication. They also work alongside other clinicians and the public health community in order to improve education and prevention efforts, gaps in services, and pharmaceutical research, and they represent an integral part of mental health services in the community.

What Do I Need to Be a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

If you are a registered nurse interested in becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, you must obtain a Master of Science in Nursing Degree (MSN) with a specialization in psychiatric healthcare. As with most nursing specializations, additional certification is available via the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), and may be mandatory, depending on your employer.

Your MSN specialization will equip you with the tools necessary for your career. Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners require specialized knowledge in assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health maladies.

In their training, they become prepared to utilize multidisciplinary academic knowledge in a variety of sensitive, real-world scenarios, with a direct impact on the standard of living of patients who suffer from mental health disorders: psychopharmacology, counseling, and the causes and symptoms of mental health illness are just some examples of the contents you can find in this degree path.

And along with this theoretical background, an MSN in Psychiatric Nursing can provide you with practical skills such as critical thinking, leadership, and communication, all of which are needed to excel in a practitioner role. It can also aid nurses in contributing to policy development, such as health care reform and health education.

Many candidates who pursue their MSN are already Registered Nurses. You may already know that working full time as an RN can greatly restrict your ability to attend full-time, on-campus classes; luckily, many schools offer accredited online programs that provide needed flexibility to your schedule and allow you to study from the comfort of your home. Additionally, studying online allows you to eliminate many of the additional expenses associated with on-campus studying, such as transportation and parking fees.

Moreover, if you are interested in nursing research, you may consider a doctoral degree in nursing (DNP). It can help prepare you for work as a professor, researcher, or administrator. However, these often require that you be at the school’s physical location.

Example Courses in an MSN-Specialization in Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Curriculum

Below, we have listed some of the courses you can expect to see in your specialization track to becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner:

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Role

This and similar courses tend to provide an introduction for foundational approaches to psychiatric assessment, diagnostic, and testing. It aims to provide an introduction and an overview of the field of psychiatry and psychiatric nursing, as well as many of the most common issues associated with the field. Often, there will exist separate modules concerning child and adolescent psychiatry, and applications aimed more specifically at adults and senior citizens.

Psychopharmacologic Approaches to Treatment of Psychopathology

In addition to a training in pharmacology, or the branch of medicine involved with the use of prescription drugs, nursing students wishing to be trained as a psychiatric nurse practitioner will require knowledge of how the use of such drugs can affect patients specifically suffering from mental disorders. This course builds on students’ previous knowledge and allows students to engage in thinking about different approaches to reactionary treatment of major mental illness disorders that preventative efforts could not alleviate.

Psychotherapy

While psychiatric nurse practitioners do require knowledge of pharmacology, much of their skillset revolves around the ability to address a patient’s needs without resorting directly to the use of medication. Psychotherapy, or the treatment of a mental disorder through psychological as opposed to physical means, is a key tool in a PNP’s skill set.

This and similar courses allows students to arrive at different methods of individualized psychotherapy treatments, as well as the techniques required for group and family units. Students are introduced to a variety of evidence-based practices in the therapeutic sciences.

How Much is Tuition for an Online Program?

Costs can vary based on a number of factors. Below are a few examples of in-state and out-of-state approaches of some the top-rated online MSN programs that offer specializations in psychiatric nursing.

Make sure to investigate other institutions that interest you, as well as any financial aid packages or federal grants you may qualify for.

Nicholls State University

$9,066 per year – Average completion time, 2 to 3 years

University of South Alabama

$10,188 per year – Average completion time, 2 to 3 years

University of South Indiana

$12,138 per year – Average completion time, 2 to 3 years

When investigating options, be sure to verify that the program in question is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

What Additional Certification Do I Need?

As with most specializations within the field of nursing, employers may require you to be certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center in order to practice your degree. Once you complete eligibility requirements to take the certification examination and successfully pass the exam, you are awarded the credential: Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified(PMHNP-BC).

This certification has a duration of five years, after which it must be renewed. To be eligible to sit for the exam, you must hold an active RN license, have completed your Master’s degree, and have completed a set amount of clinical training.

What Salary Can I Expect?

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages’ page reports a calculated median average salary for nursing practitioners (with similar qualifications and education levels) as $111,100. According to data collected by Nurse Journal, the average salary for psychiatric nurse practitioners is between $65,000 and $95,000.

Keep in mind that there are factors that influence this number, including experience, location, and level of education. Generally, psychiatric nurse practitioners are among the highest paid specializations within the nursing field.

What Kind of Employment Can I Expect?

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that the percent of industry employment for nurse practitioners with MSN degrees is projected to increase at an average rate of 31 percent from 2014-2024; it is worth noting that this number is far higher than the national average.

Nurse Journal predicts the job outlook for psychiatric nurse practitioners to grow by a rate of 26% in the coming years.

As a certified, educated psychiatric nurse practitioner, you can expect to have the skillset for a wide variety of responsibilities within the field of mental health. In many ways, PNPs are very similar to psychiatrists. Like psychiatrists, they are capable of diagnosing mental illnesses, treating patients with psychiatric disorders, prescribing medication, and counseling patients suffering from depression or anxiety.

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, 2.1 percent of all NPs work as a psychiatric NP in a family setting, and 1.7 percent work specifically with adults. However, mental health disorders also affect adolescents and children, and you may find yourself working with entire families or children.

Almost all psychiatric nurse practitioners work in hospitals and community health facilities and clinics. Private sector work, including non-profits, is less common but can be found.

Mental health may be the most pressing issue in a patient’s life. Understanding patients and their disorders, diminishing stigma, adequately prescribing medication, and working to improve the quality of life for mental health patients represent the work of a typical psychiatric nurse practitioner.

If you think you have the passion, patience, and motivation necessary to succeed in such a field, this well-paid, quickly growing career path may be right for you.