How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

Nursing is a profession that typically requires great passion, both about the patients and clients, but about the particular field of nursing as well. One particular field, mental health, is such an example. A broad field, mental health nursing, deals with the spectrum of psychological and psychiatric disorders, such as stress, anxiety and panic attacks.

Psychiatric-mental health nurses are at the frontlines of caring for patients who suffer from the spectrum of mental disorders.

What is a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse?

According to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (, psychiatric nursing is a specialty field where psychiatric mental health registered nurses (PMHN) assess, diagnose, and treat individuals with mental health issues and disorders. In clinical settings, PMHNs may encounter children or families, clients with psychiatric disabilities, military personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder, individuals with substance abuse or psychiatric disorders, aging adults with dementia or Alzheimer's and more.

Psychiatric nurses provide a wide range of services to clients in diverse settings, from general hospitals, primary care clinics, psychiatric hospitals or treatment centers, mental health clinics, correctional facilities and more.

Psychiatric nurses who possess graduate degrees in psychiatric/mental health nursing may also qualify to become advanced practice registered nurses (PMH-APRN). Unlike a PHMN, advanced practice registered nurses can prescribe medications and administer psychotherapy to patients ( The APNA also notes that PHM-APRNs may also open private practices, serve as consultants or work in policy development.

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse?

There are several routes to becoming a mental health nurse. Most nurses take a common path, which could include the following steps:

  • Complete a program of study. Prospective nurses can complete an associate degree in nursing, a diploma program in nursing, or a bachelor's degree in nursing. Most associate degree programs are designed to be completed in two-years, diploma programs in three and bachelor's degree programs in four. Completion time depends on class scheduling, student aptitude and more.
  • Pass the NCLEX. After finishing a program of study, nurses should earn their nursing licensure by taking and passing the NCLEX examination. There are two licensure examinations: the NCLEX-PN, National Council Licensure for Practical Nurses and NCLEX-RN, the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses.
  • Get work experience in clinical settings. After passing a program of study and the NCLEX examination, nurses may want to seek employment in psychiatric-mental health nursing settings.
  • Complete a graduate program of study. Advanced practice registered nurses must typically complete additional educational and licensing requirements to work in clinical settings. The American Psychiatric Nurses Association reports there are various routes to this career field, as nurses may choose to complete a master's or doctoral degree in nursing, such as a Master of Science in Nursing or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).
  • Earn psychiatric-mental health nursing certification. According to the American Nurses Credentialing Center, nurses desiring the psychiatric-mental health nursing certification must possess an active and current RN license, have the equivalent of two-years of full-time registered nurse work experience, possess a minimum of 2,000 hours of psychiatric-mental health nursing clinical practice within the past 3 years, as well as complete 30 hours of psychiatric-mental health nursing continuing education within the past three years.
  • PMH-APRNs are often able to provide a full spectrum of services in a way that few other careers allow. Their medical training as a nurse, along with their ability to prescribe medications and provide psychotherapy, allows them to treat patients in ways social workers and psychologists cannot (

    Professional titles and licensing requirements vary by state. Interested individuals should contact their state nursing board for additional information.

    Benefits of Mental Health Nursing

    At its heart, nursing can be a demanding field, but psychiatric nurses may encounter additional stress when working with the mental health population. However, for those who are passionate about caring for that population may find mental health nursing to be a very rewarding field.

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses should see 26 percent job growth between 2010 and 2010. Although the BLS doesn't track career growth specifically for psychiatric or mental health nurses, the BLS does project 11.4 percent job growth between 2010 and 2010 for nurses working at psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals.

    About the Author: Ryan Rivera studied anxiety and panic attacks for years. He now has a website introducing anxiety at



    American Nurses Credentialing Center, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing,

    American Psychiatric Nurses Association, About Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses (PMHNs),

    Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses,

    National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCLEX Examinations,

    National Library of Medicine, NIH, Theory and practice: bridging scientists' and practitioners' roles,

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