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Want To Pursue A Career As A Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner? Here’s What You Need To Know

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, also known as psychiatric nurse practitioners, are nurse practitioners that specialize in the treatment of a wide range of mental health disorders. This includes assessing and diagnosing patients who are suffering from mental illnesses, substance abuse problems and other psychiatric disorders. In this regard, they form one of many different specialized career path options open to those with nurse practitioner qualifications.

Demand for nurse practitioners with psychiatric training has increased in recent years as public awareness of mental health has risen. This has also been fueled by rising rates of mental health disorders across the world, which has most recently been characterized by the World Health Organization as a major obstacle to achieving global development goals.

In America, demand for mental health treatment has increased sharply in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to more and more individuals seeking out treatment for anxiety and depression. The American Psychological Association expects this trend to continue in the coming years, particularly as public awareness of mental health disorders rises.

These trends have left many mental health professionals over-stretched, with the Psychiatric Times recently characterizing the US as facing a psychiatric care “crisis” due to the combined effect of rising demand and a lack of resources. While this obviously varies across all 50 states, the trends are broadly similar.

To combat these worrying trends, the health care sector in the US will require both innovation and manpower. Innovation will allow psychiatric professionals to work with more efficiency to meet this demand, while increases in manpower will ensure treatment levels remain adequate in the coming years.

With this in mind, many nurses and nurse practitioners have started to explore how they might pursue a career with a mental health or psychiatric focus.

One option to do this is by pursuing a psychiatric nurse practitioner program, which allows registered nurses to both increase their practice autonomy, while also deepening their skills in this branch of medicine.

If you want to learn more about what’s involved in a career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, click here. Training options to transition into this field include fully online tuition programs, which can be undertaken on a flexible basis. For the time being, however, let’s take a closer look at what exactly a psychiatric nurse practitioner is, what’s involved in the training process and the career options it opens up.

What are nurse practitioners?

Before we look at psychiatric nurse practitioners more specifically, we should first set out what nurse practitioners are and how they differ from traditional registered nurses.

In short, a nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse that has an expanded practice scope that includes health promotion, disease prevention and the diagnosis and management of both acute and chronic health problems. Following training as a registered nurse, qualification as a nurse practitioner is made possible through graduate-level education and training which prepares the individual for the additional powers and responsibilities nurse practitioners take on.

These powers and responsibilities include a more comprehensive and often problem-focused health history to gather subjective information about symptoms, physical examinations to gather information about signs of illness, as well as the ordering and interpretation of testing or lab work to differentiate between possible diagnoses.

Nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat acute and chronic illnesses by using both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatment modalities. They also have a responsibility to evaluate the effectiveness of any care plans that are drawn up. This includes the ability to prescribe medications, although the specific limitations on this may vary on a state-by-state basis.

Nurse practitioners can also set up their own clinics. Once again, the specifics of this will vary across the 50 states. In some states, full practice authority is possible, while in others, they must partner with a physician.

How do you become a nurse practitioner?

Registered nurses can start pursuing a career path as a nurse practitioner by undertaking a relevant, accredited program of study. These programs typically include a particular practice focus, given the large number of settings and specialties that nurse practitioners can find themselves working in.

There is no difference whether the individual has qualified as a registered nurse through an undergraduate or graduate level program. All that is required is that the individual hoping to pursue this career path is a registered nurse and that they have a certain amount of nursing practice experience behind them, although this will vary between different programs.

Nurse practitioner programs can be pursued on either a full- or part-time basis. The average length of time it will take to become a nurse practitioner is between two to four years. As such, the total timeline between starting your nursing education and becoming a master’s or doctorally prepared nurse practitioner could be between six to eight years depending on the path you choose.

Admission requirements will vary, although they will generally include an active and unblemished nursing license, transcripts from your previous nursing program, a personal statement outlining why you want to pursue this path, and possibly evidence of practice experience.

Nurse practitioner specialties: Where do psychiatric nurse practitioners fit in?

As noted above, nurse practitioners often pursue a specialty area of practice. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, there are 11 different specialties that a nurse practitioner can be certified in. Some of these include:

  • Pediatrics-acute care
  • Pediatrics-primary care
  • Neonatal
  • Gerontology
  • Women’s health
  • Acute care
  • Psychiatric/mental health
  • Adult care
  • Family

Of these, family practice is by far the most popular, with around 69% of nurse practitioners earning a certification in family practice. 

Currently, only around 4.7% of nurse practitioners practice as psychiatric nurse practitioners. However, as more and more registered nurses learn about and pursue the increasingly attractive nurse practitioner certification, it is likely that we will see a more diverse range of specialties represented. This is particularly true for a specialty such as psychiatric, where the demand for qualified professionals outstrips the supply to such a great extent. 

But what is it exactly that psychiatric nurse practitioners do?

What are psychiatric nurse practitioners?

As you might be able to guess from the name, a psychiatric nurse practitioner is a nurse practitioner that provides care to meet the mental health and fitness needs of patients. This includes assessing, diagnosing and treating a range of different mental health disorders.

What do psychiatric nurse practitioners do?

In terms of the work psychiatric nurse practitioners actually do, the scope of their duties typically includes performing various types of mental health assessments, diagnosing patients and completing any necessary psychiatric evaluations. They can also identify specific risk factors in a patient’s life and develop care plans that take these into account. Psychiatric nurse practitioners also frequently provide psychotherapy or crisis intervention, as well as prescribe medication in line with treatment plans.

Much like psychiatrists, nurse practitioners are also responsible for informing and educating patients and their families about mental health issues.

The range of disorders that mental health and psychiatric nurse practitioners treat is wide, although it will include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality dysfunction
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Trauma related disorders
  • Substance abuse issues

Treatment plans might be developed for mood disorders, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, ADHD and addiction.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners end up working in a wide variety of clinical settings, which includes:

  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Private clinics
  • Assisted living homes
  • Mental health institutions
  • Drug and alcohol treatment centers
  • Educational institutions (schools, colleges and universities)

Professional bodies for psychiatric nurse practitioners

Once you have qualified as a nurse practitioner and have started practicing in the psychiatric field, you have a number of options open to you in terms of professional body membership.

There is firstly the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), which was formed in 2013 to provide nurse practitioners with a unified way of networking and advocating issues related to the profession. The AANP undertakes advocacy at local, state and federal levels and seeks to advance the profession as a whole.

The AANP is the largest organization for nurse practitioners in the US and has an estimated membership of around 100,000. It also has two official journals which publish academic work related to the profession: the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners and The Journal for Nurse Practitioners.

Secondly, there is also the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, which represents the thousands of psychiatric nurse practitioners across the US. It is accredited as a provider of nursing continuing professional development. Currently, it has around 15,000 members which includes all psychiatric-mental health nursing professionals, including nurse practitioners.

If you choose to progress as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, membership in both organizations will be useful as a way of connecting with other professionals working in similar roles, as well as to access opportunities for education and continuing professional development.

Psychiatric nurse practitioner: Salary range

In terms of the salary you can expect to receive as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, this can vary quite widely across the healthcare industry and will vary depending on where you are working, how much experience you have, what qualifications you have achieved and the employer you work for.

However, average salaries well in excess of six figures are regularly recorded for psychiatric nurse practitioners. One prominent professional salary reporting website, for example, reported an average salary of $113,095 per year, while another similar website quotes a salary range of between $106,000 and $260,000.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners can work in a wide variety of health and occupational settings, which includes hospitals (both inpatient and outpatient), behavioral health clinics, as well as government departments such as the Department of Veteran Affairs. The VA has recently posted a salary range of between $100,000 to $200,000 for this position.

Psychiatric nurse practitioner salaries are not only generally quite high, they also compare well to other types of nurse practitioners. For example, oncology nurse practitioners can expect to receive a salary range of between $117,074 to $161,500, while nurse anesthetists benefit from an annual salary of around $195,610.

Although these salaries also vary quite widely, we can see that psychiatric nurse practitioners receive salaries in line with some of the highest-paid nurse practitioners in the healthcare sector. Furthermore, given the growing demand for qualified mental health and psychiatric professionals, we can expect these salary bands to increase in years to come.

Job market outlook for psychiatric nurse practitioners

While the basic psychiatric nurse practitioner qualification prepares you well for a variety of roles in healthcare settings, there are certain specialties which look set to experience increased demand in the coming years.

Areas of increased demand include mental health services around drug use disorders and substance abuse more generally, as well as youth psychiatric disorders. Depression, anxiety and suicide are particularly pressing issues among younger demographics, so we can expect to see demand for qualified professionals to rise across these specialties.

Generally, however, demand for psychiatric nurse practitioners should remain stable as more entities and organizations embrace the need for better mental health services.

Becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner: What are the steps?

If all the above sounds interesting to you and you are now seriously considering becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner, there are several steps you will need to follow and satisfy. These steps are:

  • 1) Earn a basic nursing credential: This is typically a BSN degree, either as a 4-year undergraduate degree or via an accelerated program. The time it takes to accomplish this may be between 18 months and four years depending on which program you undertake.
  • 2) Pass the National Council Licensure Examination: Once you have passed this exam, you will receive registered nurse (RN) status and will be able to obtain a nursing license. These are issued on a state-by-state basis, so the exam may vary depending on where you want to practice.
  • 3) Gain RN experience: Many nurse practitioner programs will require at least two years nursing experience before applications can be considered.
  • 4) Enroll in a nursing graduate program: Before specializing, future psychiatric nurse practitioners will have to enroll in an education program that meets the minimum requirements for qualification as a nurse practitioner. These programs typically last two years.
  • 5) Gain psychiatric mental health certification and nurse practitioner licenses: For psychiatric nurse practitioner board certification, applicants will typically have to possess a nurse practitioner graduate degree and undertake a set number of supervised working hours in their specialty of choice. The psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner board certification process is overseen by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, which will assess clinical knowledge and skills. Individual states may have their own additional certification requirements.

Is a career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner the right career choice for me?

If you are someone who has a strong ability to listen and empathize with other people, excellent teamwork skills, verbal and written communication skills and a keen interest in mental health and illness, you might be perfectly suited to a career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

Communication skills are particularly important, as understanding and communicating with patients — who might often be emotionally unresponsive — is a core part of the job. Nurse practitioners will also need to communicate with other healthcare professionals and to advocate strongly for their patient’s needs where necessary. Psychiatric nurse practitioners must also be compassionate and empathetic and display an ability to work with considerable sensitivity with regard to their patients’ needs.

In terms of the difficulty of this career path, many nursing students will find the graduate-level coursework more difficult than their undergraduate schooling, which is in addition to intensive clinical rotations. These difficulties can be exacerbated in circumstances where they are undertaken while also maintaining full-time employment. This career path can take a number of years, which may put mid-career nurses off.

However, working as a psychiatric nurse practitioner is ultimately a deeply satisfying job. While treatment plans can take quite some time to complete, the results are both highly tangible and very powerful, which only deepens this sense of professional satisfaction.

Furthermore, the ability to take on higher levels of responsibility and to undertake duties such as prescribing medication and developing treatment plans provides a deep sense of professional satisfaction.

With all that said, if you are a registered nurse looking for your next professional challenge and to develop a highly in-demand specialty, a psychiatric nurse practitioner program could be just what you need!

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