What's Involved in Charting a Rewarding Behavioral Health Nurse Career Path?

What's Involved in Charting a Rewarding Behavioral Health Nurse Career Path?

Health Carousel Travel Nursing
Share this post

In today's fast-paced world, the importance of mental health care is growing with an increasing demand for knowledgeable and compassionate Behavioral Health Nurses. This guide delves into the key aspects of a Mental Health Nurse's role, the journey to becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, and what a rewarding career in this field may look like. We'll discuss day-to-day operations, education and licensing, comparisons with other nursing paths, potential rewards and challenges, salaries, and the significant role you would take in providing comprehensive care for patients with mental health conditions.

What are the Key Aspects of a Mental Health Nurse's Job Role?

Mental health nurses play a critical role in providing compassionate care and support to patients struggling with mental illnesses, behavioral disorders, and emotional issues. Their main responsibilities involve assessing patient needs, developing treatment plans, administering medications, providing therapy, and educating patients and families. Some of the key aspects of a psychiatric nurse's job role include:

How does a Psychiatric Nurse Interact with Mental Health Conditions?

Psychiatric nurses regularly interact with patients facing a wide range of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, and more. They conduct mental health assessments to identify risk factors, symptoms and warning signs. Based on their evaluation, they create customized treatment plans which may involve counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, psychoeducation, and prescription of psychiatric medications.

Psych nurses monitor patient progress and adjust care plans accordingly. They also provide emergency interventions during mental health crises like panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, or episodes of self-harm. Their compassionate communication skills allow them to develop therapeutic nurse-patient relationships built on trust and understanding.


How do Mental Health Nurses Care for their Patients?

Mental health nurses utilize a holistic approach focused on providing personalized, dignified care to help patients regain wellness and stability. They employ evidence-based nursing practices like motivational interviewing, validation therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy to meet each patient's unique needs.

Psych nurses assist patients with activities of daily living, provide emotional support during difficult times, educate them about their illness, teach coping strategies, involve family in care planning, and help connect patients to community resources after discharge. Their around-the-clock presence and consistent encouragement motivates patients to actively participate in their recovery.

What does a Typical Day of a Psych Nurse Look Like?

A typical day for a psychiatric nurse is busy and varied. It involves a combination of clinical nursing duties and psychosocial interventions. They begin their day by receiving handoff reports about patient status during shift change meetings. After reviewing each patient's chart, they start morning rounds to check in on everyone and administer medications.

Nurses then facilitate group therapy sessions on topics like anger management, art therapy or coping skills. They also meet with patients one-on-one to provide counseling and teach stress reduction techniques. Other responsibilities include updating care plans, consulting with doctors/specialists, documenting progress notes, and assisting with admissions/discharges.

Their schedule is often unpredictable due to patient emergencies which require rapid assessment and intervention. Psych nurses demonstrate versatility and unwavering composure when responding to crises like seizures, self-injurious behaviors or aggression from patients.

How Can One Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

The psychiatric nurse practitioner career path typically begins by earning either an associate's degree (ADN) or a bachelor's degree (BSN) in nursing. Many nurses choose to start with an ADN, which takes 2-3 years, to allow them to start working as an RN sooner. They can then enroll in an RN to BSN program while working. Others opt for a 4-year BSN program right away.

After becoming a registered nurse (RN), psychiatric nurses usually work for 1-2 years in a mental health setting like an inpatient psychiatric unit or outpatient behavioral health clinic. This clinical experience provides invaluable real-world training before transitioning into an advanced practice role as a nurse practitioner (NP).

To become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP), RNs must complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree with a PMHNP concentration. MSN programs build on the foundation of undergraduate nursing education with advanced coursework and clinical training focused specifically on psychiatric mental healthcare.

What Educational Requirements are Needed for a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Career?

The minimum education required to become a psychiatric NP is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree from an accredited nursing program. Many schools also require applicants to hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree and have 1+ years of experience working as a registered nurse in a mental health setting.

Typical PMHNP graduate curriculum includes coursework in psychiatric assessment, diagnosis and management of mental health conditions, psychotherapy, pharmacology, and hundreds of hours of supervised clinical training in both inpatient and outpatient behavioral healthcare settings.

Some nurses choose to go a step further and pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in nursing. While not required, a doctoral degree enhances clinical knowledge and leadership skills for career advancement.

How Important is Clinical Experience in a Nursing Program?

Clinical rotations are an essential part of psychiatric nurse practitioner education. NP programs require students to complete 500-700+ hours of supervised clinical training. These experiential learning opportunities allow students to apply concepts from coursework in real healthcare settings.

Working alongside experienced psychiatric-mental health nurses and nurse practitioners, students gain first-hand exposure to assessing and treating patients with mental health disorders. This clinical experience builds skills in psychiatry, psychotherapy, diagnostic reasoning, treatment planning, and care coordination.

Moreover, clinical rotations provide invaluable networking opportunities within the mental healthcare field. Many students end up working professionally at one of their clinical sites after graduating and obtaining licensure.

What's Involved in Obtaining an RN License in Psychiatric Care?

To legally work as a registered nurse in psychiatric care settings, RNs must pass the NCLEX-RN exam and obtain state licensure. The NCLEX-RN tests nursing competencies in areas like mental health, pharmacology, patient safety, and more.

Psychiatric nurses should research the licensing requirements in their desired state(s) of practice. Typically the application process involves submitting transcripts, passing a criminal background check, and paying licensing fees.

After receiving an RN license, psychiatric nurses should consider obtaining voluntary credentials like Certified in Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing (PMHCNS-BC) from American Nurses Credentialing Center. Certification validates specialized expertise to employers and patients.

Additionally, as advanced practice nurses, psychiatric NPs must obtain APRN licensure in their state and national certification (e.g. PMHNP-BC) after graduating from an accredited NP program.

What does a Career Path as a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Look Like?

The career path to becoming a mental health nurse practitioner begins with earning either an associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing. Many psychiatric nurse practitioners first gain clinical experience working as a registered nurse in a mental health setting such as an inpatient psychiatric unit or outpatient mental health clinic. This allows them to gain valuable experience caring for patients with various mental health conditions before advancing their education.

The next step is to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree with a specialization in psychiatric mental health. These programs prepare nurses to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions. Coursework covers topics like psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and mental health assessment. In addition to classroom learning, students complete hundreds of supervised clinical hours working directly with patients.

After graduating with an MSN, psychiatric nurse practitioners must pass a national certification exam to earn credentials like PMHNP-BC. With this advanced education and certification, they can prescribe medication and provide therapy to patients independently. Psychiatric nurse practitioners often work in private practice, hospitals, community mental health centers, and other settings providing psychiatric care.

For nurses who want to advance even further in their education, options include earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or PhD in nursing. These programs prepare nurses for roles in research, teaching, leadership, and specialized clinical practice. Overall, there are many opportunities for mental health nurses to advance their knowledge, skills, and credentials over the course of their career.

What's the Difference between Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses and Other Nurse Practitioners?

While all nurse practitioners assess patients, order diagnostic tests, prescribe medications, and provide treatment, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners specifically focus on caring for patients with behavioral health disorders and mental illness. Their graduate education and clinical training is concentrated in psychiatric care rather than other specialties.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners typically work with patients who have conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, trauma, substance abuse disorders, and more. They have expertise in therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy and psychopharmacology. Other types of nurse practitioners may focus on family practice, women's health, pediatrics, or other specialties not directly related to mental health.

Additionally, the settings where psychiatric mental health nurses work may be different than other nurse practitioners. Psych NPs often work in private mental health practices, prisons, community mental health centers, hospitals, and residential treatment facilities. They collaborate closely with psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and other mental healthcare providers as part of a treatment team.

What Role do Mental Health Nurse Practitioners Play in Outpatient Care?

In outpatient mental health settings, psychiatric nurse practitioners play a central role in providing ongoing care to patients with a wide range of mental health needs. Their duties may include:

  • Performing mental health assessments and developing treatment plans
  • Providing medication management including prescribing and monitoring medications
  • Conducting individual, group, and family psychotherapy sessions

Outpatient care allows mental health NPs to develop long-term relationships with patients and provide continuity of care. They can coordinate care with psychiatrists, primary care providers, and other members of the treatment team. Outpatient settings also enable patients to receive mental healthcare while still living at home and staying involved in their communities.

Mental health nurse practitioners focus on building therapeutic relationships with patients. They educate patients and families about mental health disorders and treatments. Outpatient care gives nurse practitioners the flexibility to adapt treatment plans to meet each patient's changing needs over time.

How does an Advanced Practice Psychiatric Nurse Differ from a Registered Nurse?

While registered nurses provide vital frontline mental health services, advanced practice psychiatric nurses have a higher level of education, training, and authority. Some key differences include:

  • Psychiatric nurse practitioners earn a Master's of Science in Nursing degree while RNs have an associate's or bachelor's degree
  • NPs can prescribe medication, provide psychotherapy, and diagnose mental illnesses; RNs cannot
  • Advanced practice nurses have specialized training in psychiatric assessment, diagnostics, therapy, and pharmacology

Additionally, the scope of practice for a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner allows them to work more independently without direct physician oversight. NPs can manage medication, order tests, develop treatment plans, and run their own clinical caseloads - tasks outside an RN's role.

However, RNs are still critical providers on the mental health treatment team. They spend more direct care time with patients providing hands-on nursing services. Psychiatric RNs have specialized skills in areas like de-escalation, safety monitoring, and therapeutic communication. Overall, advanced practice nurses and RNs collaborate to provide comprehensive, evidence-based mental healthcare.

What are the Potential Rewards and Challenges in Mental Health Nursing?

Mental health nursing can be an incredibly rewarding yet challenging career path. Nurses in this specialty get the privilege of walking with patients through some of life's most difficult moments and helping them find healing, hope and wholeness. There is great satisfaction in connecting with patients, earning their trust, and making a positive impact during a vulnerable time.

However, the work also comes with unique challenges. Mental health nurses often see people during crises and must handle situations with compassion and level-headedness. The nurse must set healthy boundaries while still building rapport with patients. They witness trauma and pain on a regular basis, which can lead to compassion fatigue if not managed well. Additionally, patients dealing with behavioral health issues may act out aggressively at times, posing safety concerns.

Mental health nursing requires patience, emotional intelligence, problem-solving skills, adaptability and self-care. The environment can be unpredictable. Nurses need to be able to think critically and make decisions independently. Counseling and communication abilities are essential. Though demanding, nursing in psychiatric and mental health settings provides an opportunity to change lives.

What are the Average Salaries for Mental Health Nursing Specialties?

Salaries for mental health nurses can vary depending on location, experience and specialty. Here are some average salary ranges:

  • Psychiatric nurse practitioner: $97,000 - $123,000
  • Clinical nurse specialist in mental health: $83,000 - $106,000
  • Mental health nurse educator: $69,000 - $96,000
  • Psychiatric staff nurse: $58,000 - $78,000
  • Forensic psychiatric nurse: $67,000 - $94,000

Generally, advanced practice nurses and those in leadership roles earn higher wages. Geographic region also impacts pay, with nurses on the coasts earning more. Experience level matters as well. Overall, mental health nursing provides stable compensation with potential to earn an excellent living.

How do Psych Nurses Address Behavioral Disorders in their Clinical Practice?

Psychiatric nurses help patients manage a variety of behavioral health disorders in clinical settings. Some approaches may include:

  • Building rapport and trust through active listening and validation
  • Conducting mental health assessments to identify signs, symptoms and onset
  • Developing customized treatment plans with therapies, medications, lifestyle changes
  • Educating patients and families on the disorder, treatment options and coping skills
  • Monitoring patients for medication side effects, warning signs and safety risks
  • Using verbal de-escalation strategies to calm agitated patients
  • Promoting healthy habits like sleep hygiene, nutrition, exercise and stress relief
  • Working collaboratively with therapists, doctors and social workers on the care team
  • Providing crisis intervention as needed for acute symptoms
  • Ensuring smooth care transitions from inpatient to outpatient settings

How do Psychiatric Nurses Function as Behavioral Healthcare Providers?

Psychiatric nurses serve a vital role as behavioral healthcare providers. Their duties include:

  • Completing mental health evaluations to diagnose disorders
  • Developing whole-person care plans addressing biological, psychological and social needs
  • Providing talk therapy and counseling for individuals and groups
  • Prescribing and managing psychiatric medications
  • Educating patients on their illness, treatment options and healthy coping techniques
  • Monitoring symptoms and medication side effects
  • Performing risk assessments for self-harm, suicide, violence or abuse
  • Promoting patient engagement in individual and group therapies
  • Coordinating care and collaborating across disciplines to ensure continuity
  • Advocating for patients’ rights and optimal level of care
  • Leading group education and community outreach on mental health
  • Conducting research to advance evidence-based behavioral health practices


Land your dream job faster when you travel with us. Get started with top local and national travel nurse jobs in On Demand.

mobile phone mockup


Land your dream job faster when you travel with us. Get started with top local and national travel nurse jobs in On Demand.

mobile phone mockup


Land your dream job faster when you travel with us. Get started with top local and national travel nurse jobs in On Demand.


Land your dream job faster when you travel with us. Get started with top local and national travel nurse jobs in On Demand.

View Top Jobs in

Search, apply and be the first in line for your dream job today.

View Top Jobs in

Search, apply and be the first in line for your dream job today.

Apply to Top Jobs in

Search, apply and be the first in line for your dream job today.

mobile phone mockup

Get Started in

Search, apply and be the first in line for your dream job today.

Take Control of Your Career with

Search, apply and be the first in line for your dream job today.