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Mental Health Nurse

April 8, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Mental health nurses work with patients struggling with emotional and mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disease, and schizophrenia. There is currently a huge demand for skilled mental health nurses in the medical field. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for psychiatric nurse practitioners is expected to increase by 45% over the next ten years, which is substantially higher than the national average job growth.

Salaries for mental health nurses vary greatly based on training and experience. For example, according to the BLS, the average salary for registered nurses is $73,300, while the median salary for mental health nurse practitioners is $109,820. Due to the growing demand for mental health nurses, this career offers a high level of job security.

If you’re considering a career as a mental health nurse, the following information can help you decide if this is the right career choice for you and show you how to get started.

How to prepare for mental health nursing

Mental health nursing can be a very challenging, yet rewarding career. It’s one of the most in-demand nursing careers today. These nurses work directly with patients dealing with a wide range of mental health problems, such as depression, personality disorder, and addiction. The most successful psychiatric mental health nurses have a high level of empathy and understanding. They must be able to accept people from all different demographics, socioeconomic backgrounds, and lifestyles while providing exceptional care and compassion in a non-judgmental manner.

Due to the nature of these careers, it’s equally important for psychiatric nursing students to have a good handle on their own mental health. It’s advisable to seek professional assistance to deal with any lingering issues, such as anxiety or grief, and to obtain effective treatment before starting a career in mental health care.

It’s also important to have a strong desire to help others and to provide therapeutic treatments, as necessary. A mental health worker often works one-on-one with patients and must have exceptional communication and observation skills. These skills allow nurses to connect with patients in order to properly assess, diagnose, and treat them.

Additionally, mental health nursing practitioners must have a high degree of integrity because patient confidentiality is a must at all levels. Other skills, such as problem-solving, deductive reasoning, and the ability to work in a high-stress environment are also valuable skills to have. Mental health nurses must also be able to remain calm in emergency situations, such as suicidal incidents.

A psychiatric mental health nurse work in a variety of workplace environments, including hospitals, inpatient treatment facilities, nursing homes, community mental health facilities, and behavioral health clinics as well as for private mental health providers. Since many of these facilities provide around-the-clock care, mental health nurses may work all hours of the day and night. These nurses also spend a majority of their day standing on their feet examining patients but may also provide one-to-one counseling services and complete desk duties, such as paperwork and referrals.

If you’re still in high school, you can start to prepare for a career in mental health nursing by taking related courses, including biology, chemistry, statistics, and psychology. Taking these high-school-level courses cannot only prepare you for advanced college-level classes but also help you decide if a career in the mental health field is the right option for you. If possible, it’s also advisable to volunteer or obtain an internship in a mental health care setting. This type of experience can also help you determine if this is the right career choice.

A college degree is required to obtain a job in the mental health nursing field. Since competition into top-rated nursing programs can be intense, it’s important to maintain high grades at the high school level. You should plan to take the SAT exam during your junior and senior years in high school. Taking an SAT test prep course can help you boost your exam scores and increase your chance of gaining admittance into a high-quality nursing program.

If you are unable to get into a bachelor-level nursing program or if you’re not ready to start a four-year program, you can begin your career by completing an associate program at a community college. Many of these programs can be completed online with minimum, if any, in-person instruction required. Some community colleges partner with universities to offer an ADN-to-BSN degree program that will allow you to instantly enter a bachelor’s program after completion of an associate-level course.

Important things to know about nursing school is that clinical work may be required for completion of the program. Even if you are taking an online nursing program, you may be required to complete clinical practice or lab work in-person. Fortunately, many schools partner with local health care facilities to allow students to complete this experience in their own communities.

Additionally, some nursing schools require full-day studies, which may make it difficult to continue working while completing nursing school. It’s vital that you fully understand all course requirements before starting any nursing degree program.

Requirements for becoming a mental health nurse

The first step to becoming a mental health nurse is to earn a nursing degree or diploma. There are several degree options available, including:

Associate degree

It typically takes about two years of full-time studies to earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). As a mental health nursing student, you can expect to take courses in related fields, such as biology, anatomy, and health science. Since you cannot specialize in mental health nursing at an associate degree level, it’s highly recommended to take elective courses in psychology and behavioral science. While you may be able to complete some classes online, you may also be required to attend in-person labs and clinics. Although many employers require nurses to have an LPN or RN license, you may be able to find low-level, entry positions with an associate degree.

Nursing diploma

Some universities and nursing schools also offer a nursing diploma program. While these diploma programs vary greatly, they typically involve intensive studies that require a full-time commitment. You can expect to take courses in relevant sciences, such as biology and anatomy, as well as complete in-person clinical training. In many cases, you can earn your Nursing Diploma in one or two years.

Depending on your state’s specific regulations, you may be able to take the NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN exam upon receiving a nursing diploma from an accredited school. Most nursing diploma programs do not have an option to specialize in mental health nursing. However, after earning your LPN or RN license, you will find plenty of entry-level positions available in the mental health field.

Bachelor’s degree

The majority of mental health nursing students opt to earn their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. A bachelor’s degree program typically takes 4 years of full-time studies to complete. Students who have earned an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) can transfer to a BSN program, which will take about 2 to 3 years to complete.

Many nursing courses can be completed online, but most programs still require labs and clinical work to be completed in-person either at the universities or at a local, approved medical facility. Students can expect to take courses in science and mathematics, such as anatomy, chemistry, and pharmacology. Students wishing to specialize in mental health nursing should also take courses in psychology and mental health studies.

Upon graduation, you will also be eligible to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam to earn a RN license. Completion of a BSN degree along with RN licensing will make you eligible for numerous jobs in health care facilities, residential homes, nursing homes, and private practices.

Master’s degree

At the master’s degree level, you will be able to obtain a specialized degree in mental health nursing. You must first complete an undergraduate program in nursing or a related field. Many universities offer BSN-to-MSN and RN-to-MSN programs that allow students to directly transfer from their undergraduate program to master-level studies.

Mental health nursing students take advanced classes, such as psychological therapy, behavioral science, biology, and diagnostic practices along with hours of clinical experience. Many universities offer both in-person and online programs that allow students to complete the program while still working full-time. However, most programs do require the completion of clinical work, which can often be done at local health care facilities.

Many programs can be completed in two to three years of additional studies. There are several degree programs available, including:

  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) – this is a broad degree program that will enable graduating students to work in any health care setting, including mental health care.
  • Master of Mental Health Counseling – this program is ideal for those students who want to pursue a nursing career that focuses on mental health assessments, diagnosis, and treatments, including psychotherapeutic counseling.
  • Master of Psychiatric Mental Health – this degree program is designed for those nursing students who want to focus more on the clinical side of mental health, such as medication management and diagnosis.

Doctoral degrees

Nurses wishing to advance their careers can enroll in a Doctoral of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree program. While the DNP is a broad program for all nursing students, you can select mental health as a specialization within your degree. Most programs include a mixture of classroom (or online) studies and hands-on clinical work.

Certification program

Many mental health nurses move forward to earn a certification as a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) offered through the American Nurse Credentialing Center. Each state has its own set of prerequisites needed to obtain this certification, but in most cases, you must have already earned a master’s or doctorate degree in psychiatric nursing, hold a current RN license, and complete a set number of years of clinical experience. Completing a PMHNP program and earning your certification will make you eligible for nearly all positions within the mental health nursing field.

Additional requirements

At both the RN and the PMHNP level continuing education requirements must be met on an ongoing basis. These requirements also vary from state to state but RNs typically need to recertify their license every two to three years and PMHNP professionals must recertify their qualifications every three to five years. It’s important to check with your state’s licensing board to fully understand recertification requirements in your specific area. This step will ensure you meet all state requirements necessary to hold a position in the mental health field.

Responsibilities of a mental health nurse

Mental health nurses work in a variety of workplace settings, including doctor and psychiatrist offices, hospitals, in-patient residential centers, substance abuse rehabilitation centers, veteran’s medical facilities, university health clinics, and corrections facilities. Mental health nurses with a doctorate degree or nurse practitioner certification may also open their own private practice in most states.

The majority of the workday revolves around working directly with patients conducting examinations, administering treatments, or handling group or individual counseling sessions. You will also spend a large portion of the day completing required paperwork and updating patients’ mental health records. Psychiatric nurses can expect to spend several hours a day working on their feet, unless they are strictly seeing patients in a counseling setting, in which case, a majority of the day will consist of seeing patients in their office.

As an entry-level mental health nurse with just an associate degree, you will likely handle basic duties, such as obtaining a patient’s health history and assisting with self-care tasks, such as hygiene. You will work under the direct supervision of a medical or psychiatric doctor or a PMHNP. You will not, however, be able to offer any level of professional counseling, diagnose patients, or provide medical treatment. In order to handle more advanced duties, an RN license, BSN or MSN degree, doctorate degree, or a PMHNP certification is necessary.

A psychiatric nurse with an RN degree can handle a wide range of additional duties, including:

  • Conduct wellness checks
  • Monitor patient’s vitals
  • Observe patient’s symptoms
  • Record patient health history
  • Update patient files
  • Collaborate with psychiatric doctors and nurse practitioners
  • Administer medication
  • Assist with patient examinations
  • Assist with some forms of treatments

RNs must still work under the direct supervision of a licensed psychiatric doctor or certified PMHNP.

Mental health nurses who obtain a master’s or doctorate level degree can also provide mental health counseling to patients in an individual or group setting. In many states, nurses at this level are also able to diagnose mental health illnesses and provide some types of treatments, such as psychotherapy, and create patient care plans. They can work with patients struggling with a wide range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse, personality disorders, and depression. At this level, psychiatric nurses can also operate medical equipment, disperse medication, and provide referrals when necessary.

Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP) handle many of the same duties as psychiatric doctors. While each state dictates the specific duties PMHNPs can handle, most nurse practitioners in the mental health field can provide a wide range of duties, including:

  • Conduct physical and mental health examinations
  • Diagnose mental health disorders
  • Develop and monitor treatment plans for patients
  • Prescribe and manage medication
  • Order lab work and tests
  • Analyze test results
  • Provide psychotherapy treatments (both individual and group therapy)
  • Supervise staff
  • Provide necessary referrals

Top programs for mental health nursing degree and certifications

Many colleges and universities across the state offer mental health nursing programs. While this is good news, it can make finding the right program more difficult. Below is a look at the different types of programs available and some tips to help you find the right program.

Community college

If you want to start your career as a mental health nurse by earning an associate degree, you probably want to look at community colleges. Many of these schools offer comprehensive programs that enable you to earn your associate degree in as little as two years. Thanks to online education, you no longer need to search for a college in your local area or move.

Instead, you can select an online program from any state in the country. There are three main things you want to look for when searching for a community college. First, is the program accredited? Secondly, does the school have a partnership with any four-year universities that you can transfer your earned credits to if you decide to advance your career later? Thirdly, is the program completely online or does the school require in-person lab and clinical work?

Nursing school

Due to more and more nursing students opting to earn their BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree, there has been a decline in the number of standalone nursing schools across the country. However, there are still plenty of schools available. Typically, these schools offer one to two-year intense programs and require in-person coursework. In many cases, students attend nursing school for several hours a day, four to five days a week.

If you’re planning to attend a nursing school, be sure that the program is accredited and that you’ll be able to sit for your NCLEX-RN exam upon completion. While many online programs are available, in-person studies, especially clinical and lab work is usually required. Be sure to ask about these requirements when searching for the right nursing school.

Undergraduate program

Many colleges and universities offer BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree programs. Most programs take an average of four years to complete. While there are both online and on-campus programs available, most require some type of hands-on clinical work. You can expect to take a wide range of courses, such as anatomy, biology, pharmacology, and health assessments, throughout the program.

Mental health nursing specialties are not available at the undergraduate level, but you may want to find a program that allows you to minor in psychology. This step will provide you with the training you need to excel in the mental health field. At the very least, select a school that offers related courses, such as psychology and sociology, as elective courses.

If you already have your RN license, you should consider enrolling in an RN-to-BSN program. This type of accelerated program can shorten your course load and provide the fastest path to earning your bachelor’s degree. As with an associate degree, it’s critical that you select a program that is accredited to ensure your eligibility for the NCLEX-RN exam and registered nurse licensure.

Graduate degree programs

Graduate programs, both at the master’s and doctorate level, are also available online and in-person. A master’s program takes an average of two to three years to complete, while a doctorate degree can take an additional two to three years. You will take more advanced classes in biology, anatomy, psychotherapy principles, diagnostic principles, neurodevelopment, and psychotherapy techniques. You will also likely have to complete a specific number of clinical hours or an internship program.

If you have already completed a BSN program and want to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, a BSN-to-MSN might be a good option for you. On the other hand, if you know that you ultimately want to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practices (DNP) degree, you should skip the MSN program and enroll directly in a BSN-to-DNP program. These programs offer the shortest path to earning the desired degree.

Nurse practitioner certification

Nurse practitioner certification for mental health nurses is managed by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). There are two types of certification available, including Adult Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and Family Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. While specific requirements vary from state to state, the most common requirements to earn a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) certification are:

  • Complete an accredited nursing program at the masters or doctorate level.
  • Maintain an active RN license
  • Have a minimum of two years of experience working as an RN nurse
  • Complete at least 2,000 clinical hours within the last three years
  • Obtain a 350 or higher score on the PMHNP exam

Tips for finding the right mental health nursing program

If you’re considering a career as a psychiatric nurse, then finding the right nursing program is critical. Here’s a look at several factors you should consider when comparing nursing programs.

On-campus vs online

While some students prefer in-person studies and living on campus, there are many great benefits of online programs. First, online classes offer a high level of flexibility. You will still be expected to complete all the necessary coursework, but you can do this work at times that are most convenient for you. Secondly, you won’t have to relocate because you will be able to take the majority of your classes from the convenience of your own home.

In-state vs out-of-state

It’s important to realize that some colleges and universities charge higher tuition fees for students who live out-of-state. Depending on the specific school, this could translate into a substantial difference. Fortunately, with the increase in online learning, more and more higher education institutions are starting to offer the same costs for both in-state and out-of-state students. It’s still important, however, to check tuition costs prior to selecting a nursing school.  

Accreditation

Accreditation is extremely important. No matter what type of mental health nursing program you’re considering, always make sure that the program is approved by the Accreditation Commission of Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Without this accreditation, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to secure your RN license or your PMHNP certification.

Specialties

Specialty programs are not mandatory until you reach the graduate level. However, even as an undergraduate, you want to find a school that offers related courses, such as behavioral science, psychology, and sociology. This will allow you to take electives that align with your ongoing career goals and prepare you for a career in the mental health field. Some schools may even allow you to minor in psychology.

At the master’s level, be sure to select a school that offers the program, such as a Master of Science in Nursing, Master of Psychiatric Mental Health, and Master of Mental Health Counseling, that best matches your future career goals. If you’re pursuing a doctorate degree, it’s crucial that you select a DNP (Doctorate of Nursing Practice) that allows you to add a specialty in mental illness.

Program requirements

One of the most important things to compare between schools is its program’s graduation requirements. Typically, nursing programs of all types, including mental health nursing, involve a mixture of coursework, lab work, and clinical practice and observation. Even if you’re considering an online program, there may be in-person lab and clinical requirements.

Some schools allow students to gain this experience at an approved local healthcare facility, but it’s recommended to obtain more information about these requirements before making a final decision about a school. Evaluating these factors when comparing schools can help you find the program that is the right fit for you.

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