How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) help patients live with psychiatric disorders and provide resources to help improve overall quality of life. They are also responsible for educating patients’ families on the road to recovery. Perhaps you’re interested in mental health and you’ve decided that you’d like to work as a PMHNP, but you’re not exactly sure how to make that a reality.

This page will walk you through the common steps basics of how to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, explain what you’ll study, and discuss possible career opportunities.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Job Duties and Responsibilities

Whether you’ve just graduated from high school or are looking to complete a postgraduate program, you should know that there are numerous health care degrees and nursing degrees available. With so many options to choose from—spanning standalone courses and certificates to online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degrees—and covering a range of specializations, figuring out the focus of each discipline may be tough.

To put it another way, if you’re considering a psychiatric nurse career you’re probably wondering: what does a psychiatric nurse practitioner do? The answer to that question depends on your specific job, but psychiatric nurse duties include a broad range of responsibilities. 

PMHNPs treat patients with various psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, ADHD, mood disorders, and substance abuse. They often support patients with more serious disorders too, such as schizophrenia. 

Psychiatric nurse practitioners also evaluate patients before and during their care, monitoring their progress, liaising with their families, and educating them about the support they offer.

Read on to learn more about how to become a PMHNP, including the studies you must complete to qualify. 

What Are the Education Requirements for a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

To become a psychiatric nurse practitioner takes time and dedication. Candidates usually complete a nursing program—either a diploma nursing program, a two-year associate in nursing degree, or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. They must then become licensed as a registered nurse. 

Though the specifics vary by institution, undergraduate nursing programs generally cover a range of topics, including anatomy, chemistry, nutrition, and microbiology. Bachelor’s courses also emphasize communication, leadership, and critical thinking. Clinical rotations are compulsory to graduate from many undergraduate nursing programs. 

Apart from certification demands (see below), aspiring PMHNPs commonly complete a postgraduate qualification. In practice, there are several options available here, from a master’s to doctorate

What Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Certification is Needed?

After completing a nursing program, you’ll be required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) in order to obtain RN licensure. Once you’ve become licensed and obtained a master’s degree, you can then become certified by the American Nurse Credentialing Center (ANCC) as an Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC)

Depending on the individual state nursing board, there might be further licensure requirements too, but gaining a psychiatric nurse practitioner certification shows employers that a nurse is an expert in their area of focus. However, it’s important to understand that regulations for scope and standards of practice can vary by state—so make sure you do your research before committing. 

6 Common Steps to Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

With different regulatory hurdles, degree options, and specializations, every educational journey is bound to be different. But here are six potential steps on how to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner

Step 1: Attend Nursing School

As with all nursing specializations, education is fundamental to becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner. That typically begins at the undergraduate level. While many students choose full Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs, others go for a nursing diploma program or a two-year associate in nursing degree. 

From there, students can go on to pursue a postgraduate qualification. Some might choose a Master of Science in Nursing. Those who’ve completed a bachelor’s program may choose a Bachelor of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice (BSN to DNP) program. Others may opt for post-master’s certificates. 

Whatever route you choose, studying to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner means focusing in depth on mental health and disorders. To that end, you’ll learn about psychopharmacology, mental health assessment, and mental health diagnosis, among other topics.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

After completing an undergraduate program, students must take the NCLEX-RN exam. You should carefully study what the test will entail in advance. Of course, the specific questions vary every year, but they’ll always cover a range of medical topics. That includes safety and infection control, pharmacology, and health promotion and maintenance. Each person studies for the exam differently. But you may find it worthwhile to review the NCLEX test plans before exam day.  

Though many of the questions are multiple choice, the so-called ‘alternate item’ format includes other styles, notably fill-in-the-blank questions and ones involving graphs and other images. Finally, make sure you know where your test center is located.

Step 3: Obtain Your Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Degree 

After securing an undergraduate qualification and becoming a RN, you must then complete a postgraduate degree program focused on psychiatric nursing. There are several options available to you, but an MSN in psychiatric nursing practice is one common pathway. This degree can be completed in around two years. Learn more about getting into nursing school.

For students in a hurry, a joint bachelor’s and doctorate degree (commonly called a BSN to DNP degree) could work well. Combining core nursing courses, PMHNP concentration courses, and clinical hours, this option can be completed in an average of 48 months.

If you’ve already completed a postgraduate nursing degree, but now want to focus on psychiatric practice, a post-master’s psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner certificate is another option, and some of them can be completed online. 

Per ANCC certification rules, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner programs should offer at least 500 faculty-supervised clinical hours. 

Step 4: Gain Clinical Experience 

Part of becoming a certified PMHNP involves gaining clinical experience working in the field. According to the ANCC, the required clinical experience for a psychiatric nurse includes at least 500 hours of faculty-supervised clinical practice in psychiatric mental health nursing. 

That includes clinical training in at least two psychotherapeutic treatment modalities. In practice, that leaves you with a number of opportunities to specialize. For example, you may choose to focus on Freudian psychoanalysis. Or maybe you want to work in cognitive therapy, or humanistic therapy. 

Some nurses don't tie themselves to any single approach, and instead blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment. This is known as integrative or holistic therapy. 

Step 5: Become a Board-Certified Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Once you’ve taken a postgraduate course in psychiatric nursing, and completed the prerequisite clinical work (see above), you can work on gaining a certification for nurse practitioners via the American Nurses Credentialing Center. 

Covering the range of psychiatric nursing, the board-certified psychiatric NP examination tests candidates on relevant knowledge for practice and that includes diagnosis and treatment to psychotherapy to ethical and legal principles. As with the NCLEX, the questions on this exam are multiple choice.

Candidates may be able to sit for the NP examination after all their coursework and faculty-supervised clinical practice hours are complete, even if they haven’t graduated yet It’s also important to note that there are additional requirements for applicants outside the United States. 

Step 6: Start Your Search for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Jobs

Now that you’re certified, it’s time to start job hunting! There are a number of places to look for psychiatric nurse jobs, from general career portals to specialized health care websites like the American Nurses Association. Looking on specific health care company websites and local government portals may prove successful too.

Though career outlook information for psychiatric nurse practitioners is unavailable, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that demand for nurse practitioners will increase by 52% between 2019 and 2029, which is much higher than the national average for all occupations. Learn more about nursing degree salaries and nurse practitioner careers.

What Are the Continuing Education Requirements for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners?

After starting work as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, you must renew your certification every five years. But before you can start the renewal process, you’ll have to prove that you’re developing professionally and continuing education for psychiatric NPs can help you do that. 

What you focus on is up to you, but there are some minimum requirements. First, you must complete a mandatory 75 hours of education in psychiatric nursing. At least 25 of those hours will be in pharmacotherapeutics, and at least 37.5 hours are expected to be formally approved continuing education hours. 

Your continued studies must also be provided by one of several accepted agencies, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Nurses Association. In short: continuing education for psychiatric nurses is a fundamental part of the process, so make sure you do your research before you start studying!

Apart from continuing your education, renewing your certification requires you to finish one or more of the eight ‘ANCC renewal categories’ in your chosen field. In practice, there’s a broad scope here, from volunteering to completing academic research. 

Valuable Skills that Can Help You Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

As with every profession, there are many skills psychiatric nurses use. Here are a few common skills psychiatric NPs have—though it’s important to emphasize that while they may help you, none of them guarantee you success in the field.

Professionalism

Psychiatric nursing can be emotionally demanding, but it helps if  NPs remain professional at all times, showing respect and sensitivity when communicating with patients and their families. This may help to ensure you gain trust with patients, their families, and your coworkers.

Problem Solving

Fundamentally, PMHNPs help patients manage their mental health issues. Problem-solving skills can be useful throughout the treatment process, especially when it comes to identifying risk factors like trauma and substance abuse. 

Analytical Skills

Though psychiatric nursing by definition involves emotion, some professionals may also have robust analytical skills. After all, determining the scope of a mental illness might be hard. PMHNPs are often comfortable synthesizing data and patient research, as well as their own medical knowledge, to design care for patients.

In brief, the journey to becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner takes many different skills. But work hard, and do your research, and you too may be able to get started on a career that aligns with your personal goals.

 

Last Updated October 2020