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Caring for the Vulnerable: Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Role Overview

Caring for the Vulnerable: Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Role Overview

Mental health nursing is one of the most complex and gratifying nursing jobs. You care for some of the most vulnerable populations in this position, which makes the responsibility you sign up for so much greater. At the same time, your help and care help people lead happier and more fulfilling lives. And the feeling that you give someone a chance at a better life makes each ounce of responsibility worth it.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of a mental health nursing career, you’ve come to the right place. From how to become a psychiatric nurse to what mental health nurse jobs imply in terms of duties, responsibilities, and paychecks – we’ll answer all the questions you may have about schooling and working as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse. 

You ought to be ready to embrace both the challenges and the rewards of this profession should you choose to pursue it. In this guide, we’ll discuss both. 

Let’s start exploring the ins and outs of a psychiatric nursing career. 

What Is a Psychiatric Nurse?

Psychiatric Nurses are often referred to as Mental Health Nurses or Psych Nurses. The abbreviation PMHNs is also used when talking about Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses. For this reason, these terms will be used interchangeably throughout our guide.

Mental Health Nurses have a very sensitive and crucial role in the healthcare industry. Their specialized knowledge and skills allow them to offer nursing care to people with mental health issues, mental health problems, psychiatric disorders, and/or substance use disorders. PMHNs are versed in caring for patients with anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, psychotic disorders, alcohol or drug abuse, and much more. Clearly, the very vulnerable people they’re working with make the job all the more sensitive. 

In addition to caring for the individuals, Psychiatric Nurses work with families, groups, and communities with one overarching goal: to ensure good patient outcomes and support their recovery. The role of a Mental Health Nurse is, thus, invaluable. PMNHs help patients cope when they are at their worst. They help patients manage symptoms, re-gain good living skills, and find their inner strength in the face of disorders and disabilities, which, at times, may seem unconquerable. 

Psychiatric Nurses are the second largest group of behavioral health professionals in the country. Even though they have more autonomy compared to other nurses, PMHNs do not work alone. They are often part of a larger healthcare team which includes physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, or other community or medical workforce members. 

psychiatric mental health RN

Where Do Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses Work?

With a basic understanding of what Psychiatric Nurses are, we can move on to where they can find employment. 

The good news is that there is a wide variety of places and institutions that hire psychiatric nurses. With so many career options to choose from, you can pursue a work environment that best suits your personal requirements, your ambitions, and personality. Some of the most common work settings for PMHNs include:

  • Hospitals
  • Crisis intervention departments within mental health institutions
  • Psychiatric emergency departments
  • Acute psychiatric inpatient units
  • Emergency rooms
  • Women’s health medical institutions
  • Community health centers
  • Halfway houses
  • Nursing homes
  • Substance abuse treatment programs
  • School-based services
  • Private practices
  • Academia (especially for Advanced Practice Nurses, such as Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners or Clinical Nurse Specialists)
  • Forensic health institutions (within the criminal justice systems, there is a high rate of mental illness and/or disorders related to trauma)
  • Disaster-associated mental health settings

Although these mentioned above are the most popular work settings for Psychiatric Nurses, other options are available to aspiring nurses on the lookout for Mental Health Nursing jobs. Notably, PMHNs can work in telehealth nursing services. 

Telehealth nursing has been gaining more ground in the last few years. It’s a valuable tool for offering psychiatric nursing care to people who need it most. Telemedicine, in general, comes with a higher degree of job flexibility. So, if this is something you look for in a job, then applying your psychiatric nursing skills in a telehealth environment might be a great career path for you. 

mental health nurse practitioner

What Does a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Do?

Let’s take a closer look at the job duties and responsibilities of Psychiatric Nurses. However, what you do on the job is strongly tied to the level of education and expertise you bring to the table. That’s why we’ll examine what the duties of a Mental Health Registered Nurse are and, also, what does a Psychiatric Nurse Practioner do

Registered Nurses who work in psychiatric mental health nursing may have some of the following duties on a day-to-day basis: 

  • Conduct an assessment of a patient’s status
  • Conduct intake screenings, initial evaluation, and triage
  • Provide nursing care following a treatment plan
  • Administer medication and/or other treatment regimens
  • Teach patients self-care activities
  • Engage in crisis intervention and situation stabilization (when necessary)
  • Educate patients on how to manage their condition
  • Provide education to patients’ families and communities
  • Work efficiently alongside other members of an interdisciplinary team

When it comes to Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners, the job description gets a little more complex. Their advanced education gives them a more complex scope of practice, allowing them a higher level of involvement. These are some of the tasks and responsibilities a Psychiatric NP might encounter on the job: 

  • Conduction comprehensive assessments of a patient’s state
  • Ordering and performing diagnostic tests
  • Interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Diagnosing and treating chronic or acute illnesses
  • Providing clinical supervision to Registered Nurses, Psychiatric Nurse Assistants, and other members of the nursing staff. 
  • Prescribing medication
  • Performing certain procedures
  • Making referrals to other professionals when the health problems encountered no longer fall within your scope of practice or expertise

mental health nurse jobs

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse?

There are several ways into a career within the mental health nursing field. The minimum schooling requirement is to become a licensed Registered Nurse, but what path you take to get there is entirely up to you. 

To become a Psychiatric Mental Health Registered Nurse, you have to take the following steps: 

  • Enroll in a nursing program. 

Here you can choose one of the following options:

  • An Associate’s Degree in Nursing. ADN programs usually take around two years and are the fastest track into a nursing career. 
  • A Diploma in Nursing program. This type of program has been far less prevalent in the last few years. It is usually hospital-based and takes around three years to complete.
  • A Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing program. A traditional BSN can be completed in around four years and is the most sought-after credential for nursing jobs. 
  • An accelerated BSN program. This is an excellent option for aspiring nurses who already have a Bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field and would like to transition to a nursing career. 
  • Nursing bridge programs. The most popular bridge program in the nursing field is the RN-to-BSN program. Suppose you started your career as an ADN or Diploma Registered Nurse, and you are ready to advance your education. In that case, you can opt to further your degree by enrolling in an RN-to-BSN program. Most of them, including the one offered by Nightingale College, are offered online, take less time than a traditional BSN, and are career-friendly. 

Learn more about the differences between accelerated nursing programs and bridge nursing programs

  • Pass the NCLEX-RN and become a licensed Registered Nurse

Enrolling in a nursing program – and completing it – qualifies you to sit for the national nursing exam, the NCLEX-RN. This is an exhaustive test that tests your nursing knowledge and skills, critical thinking abilities, and apprehension of essential nursing concepts and principles. Passing the NCLEX is the final step to gaining nursing licensure and pursuing a job as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse. 

  • Start looking for Psychiatric Nurse jobs

Now that you’ve obtained your RN license, it’s time to polish your nursing resume, prepare for interviews, and score that dream job.

  • Consider certification

Seeking nursing certification is an entirely voluntary step for Registered Nurses, but it comes with plenty of benefits. Increased recognition among peers and enhanced nursing skills are just the tip of the iceberg.

If you would like to become a certified nurse within the mental health field, there are some requirements you have to meet. You need at least two years of practice as a full-time RN. You need to have clocked in at least 2,000 hours of clinical practice in psychiatric nursing, and you ought to have completed at least 30 hours of continuing education. Once you check these conditions, you can choose to obtain Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC). This particular certification is offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

If you’re asking yourself How long does it take to become a Psychiatric Nurse?, the answer depends on whichever path you choose. It can be anywhere from two to four years if you’re after an RN psychiatric position. If you want to venture into advanced practice nursing and become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, you’ll have to add at least extra two years of education to obtain your Master’s Degree in Nursing

mental health nurse salary

What is the Job Outlook for Psychiatric Nurses?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the employment of Registered Nurses will grow 9% from 2020 to 2030. That adds up to around 194,500 job openings for RNs each year, on average, over the decade. 

While the BLS does not provide data specific to Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses, it is most likely that this profession will also experience an excellent job outlook. Data from the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that nearly one in five adults in the US lives with a mental illness. In 2019, around 51.5 million people had different mental illnesses and conditions that varied in severity, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. Out of the 51.5 million adults battling mental health problems in 2019, 23 million (approximately 45%) received mental health services.  

Clearly, there is a pressing need for mental health services, and Psychiatric Nurses play a vital role in this ecosystem. Moreover, as public awareness of mental health issues increases, more people will feel more comfortable asking for help. This will also lead to a boom in the demand for Psych Nurses. 

How Much Does a Psychiatric Nurse Make?

Psychiatric Nurses tend to earn fairly high salaries. Their wages will, of course, be determined by a variety of factors. Education, location, employer, and years of experience may be just some of the factors that influence the paycheck of a Mental Health Nurse. 

According to data gathered from ZipRecruiter, on average, a Psychiatric Nurse makes $79,007 a year. That is close to the average RN salary indicated by the BLS – $80,010.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners, on the other hand, can expect to earn much higher salaries. According to the same job board, as of October 2021, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners make around $123,607 annually. 

mental health nurse salary

What Are the Qualities of a Great Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse? 

It takes a special kind of person to succeed as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse. By now, you probably realize that this is a very sensitive, challenging job, so you need a set of skills to match. Undeniably, all nurses can benefit from these skills, but they are especially critical for Mental Health Nurses: 

  • Compassion. The patient populations you will be caring for are some of the most vulnerable. Maybe they’ve been through war, like so many of the war heroes battling PTSD, or perhaps they’re fighting an internal war every day. You need to approach every individual with care, compassion, and empathy. In this position, you should let yourself be guided by kindness. 
  • Be sympathetic and sensitive to people’s struggles. People with mental health problems or battling substance abuse are just as much worthy of a normal, healthy good life as everyone else. You can’t judge people and be good at this job. You can’t define people by their mental health condition. Seeing the human being in everyone and showing sensitivity when interacting with your patients is paramount in this profession. 
  • Exceptional communication skills. Being able to communicate efficiently with patients is of utmost importance for Mental Health Nurses. You’ll have to help people through some of their most difficult times, and everything – from what you say to how you say it – will play a role in how effective the care you provide is. Therapeutic communication, communication directed towards problem-solving or diffusing stressful situations, excellent listening skills – all of these will be significant assets for PMHNs. 
  • Relationship-building skills. A big part of this job relies on you being able to connect with your patients. You’ll only be able to provide the best care possible if you gain your patient’s trust. That’s not usually an easy task, but it’s essential. Getting to know your patient’s stories and building a relationship with them will come a long way.

Are You Ready to Be at the Forefront of Mental Healthcare?

With high salaries, good job prospects, and multiple ways of entry into the career, psychiatric nursing is an excellent career choice for aspiring nurses. Every day you go into work – whether in a hospital or community setting – you know that your care is directed towards some of the most vulnerable people. It’s gratifying to see that you help people gain or re-gain control of their lives and help them lead better lives. 

If you’re ready to pursue a career in mental healthcare, the time is now. 

Start by enrolling in Nightingale College’s BSN program and commence your journey towards the enriching nursing field of psychiatric care. 

If you’re already a Registered Nurse, Nightingale College’s RN-to-BSN program will help you get your skills to the next level. Be the best nurse you can be!

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