How to Become a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

How to Become a Psychiatric/ Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
How to Become a Psychiatric/ Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

With soaring demand for mental health services, the nation needs the psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNPs) role more than ever.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the coronavirus pandemic has increased mental health problems, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.

You can provide critical support to patients in need by becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

In this blog, we will help you explore the role, requirements and career outlook. You will also learn how to find an outstanding program, such as the online psychiatric/mental health NP programs offered by Wilkes University.

What Is the Role of a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

Psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners work with patients to promote and maintain their mental health. They also prevent and treat psychiatric disorders.

PMHNPs often collaborate with providers in primary and specialty care.

Roughly 1.8% of NPs are certified PMHNPs. That makes psychiatry one of the least common, but most highly sought-after NP certifications.

What Does a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Do?

A psychiatric nurse practitioner assesses, diagnoses and treats the mental health needs of patients.

On a typical day, a PMHNP might:

  • Lead group or individual therapy sessions
  • Prescribe medications
  • Perform physical and psychosocial assessments
  • Provide emergency psychiatric care
  • Develop and evaluate the effectiveness of treatment plans

Full-time PMHNPs see an average of approximately 13 patients per day.

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Illnesses and Disorders Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioners Treat

PMHNPs are educated to diagnose and treat the full range of mental health disorders. They do so following the standards of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The types of illness and disorders that a psychiatric nurse practitioner treats include:

  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Feeding and eating disorders
  • Sleep-wake disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Substance abuse and dependency

Some disorders are more common than others. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), the top health issues managed by PMHNPs are depression, anxiety, insomnia and dementia.

Read more about the role of a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner.

Practice Settings

A psychiatric nurse practitioner can practice in many health care settings. You will find PMHNPs in:

  • Private practice
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Community health centers
  • Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs

Most work in psychiatric mental health facilities.

Who Needs a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

Who Needs a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

Anyone can develop a mental health disorder – regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity or age. That is why PMHNPs are educated to treat individuals across the lifespan. They may see children, adolescents, adults and the elderly.

Their patient demographics depend on the practice setting and current trends in mental health treatment. According to 2019 data from the CDC, most people who receive mental health treatment are middle-aged, non-Hispanic white and female.

What Is the Demand for Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioners?

The demand for mental health providers, including PMHNPs, is tremendous. Healthcare leaders believe that it will continue to grow.

By 2030, the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) projects an 18% increase in the demand for PMHNPs.

This section will examine the need for more nurses to fill the psychiatric nurse practitioner role.

The Pervasiveness of Mental Disorders

The CDC says mental disorders are among the most common health conditions in the U.S. One in 25 Americans has a serious mental illness, and over 50% will receive a mental health diagnosis in their lifetime.

The prevalence of some mental disorders is rising. One example is major depression.

According to the American Psychological Association, adolescents and young adults experienced increased rates of major depression from the mid-2000s to the late 2010s. A study of medical claims by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association shows that adult diagnoses rose by 33% between 2013 and 2016.

The Shortage of Mental Health Providers

The need for mental health services is rising, but the country has a critical shortage of providers.

By 2025, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that the U.S. will lack the following numbers of mental health professionals:

  • Marriage and Family Therapists: 10,470
  • Psychiatrists: 15,400
  • Mental Health Counselors: 26,930
  • Social Workers: 48,540
  • Psychologists: 57,490
  • School Counselors: 78,050

According to the HRSA, these shortfalls already affect 122 million—or 2 out of 5—Americans. As a result, more people are reporting an unmet need for mental health services.

The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health surveyed adults ages 18 and over. More than 1 in 4 with any mental illness said they had an unmet mental health need in the past year. That figure is higher than any other year from 2008 to 2018.

Adults with serious mental illnesses reported an even larger gap. Almost half said they had an unmet need during the year, more than most years between 2008 and 2018.

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What Is the Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Career Outlook?

The career outlook is bright for the psychiatric nurse practitioner role. PMHNPs will continue to enjoy high employment growth and salaries.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Employment

PMHNPs have strong employment prospects.

The National Council for Behavioral Health has called for expanding the use of NPs in psychiatry. With a comprehensive education in mental health, PMHNPs can help fill gaps in the psychiatric workforce.

Between 2019 and 2029, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the employment of NPs will grow by 52%. That figure is 13 times faster than the average rate for all occupations.

The demand is even higher for the psychiatric nurse practitioner role. The HRSA estimates that the supply of PMHNPs will increase by 65% by 2030.

Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Salary

Psychiatry is the highest-paying NP specialization.

In the AANP’s 2019 National NP Sample Survey, full-time PMHNPs reported a median base salary of $125,000. Their median total annual income was $131,500. That includes base salary, productivity bonuses and incentive payments.

Here is how the median total income of PMHNPs compares with other APRN specializations:

What Are the Requirements for Becoming a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

What Are the Requirements for Becoming a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

To become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, you will need certain education, experience and credentials.

1. RN License

The first requirement for the psychiatric nurse practitioner role is an RN license. It must be current and unencumbered.

A valid RN license is also needed for admission to PMHNP education programs.

2. Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Degree

Another requirement is to obtain a PMHNP degree.

A psychiatric nurse practitioner can hold a master’s, doctoral degree or post-graduate certificate. These options give aspiring PMHNPs multiple entry points into the field.

Here are the different degrees that you can pursue, based on your educational background:

PMHNP Degree

Degree Required for Entry



Master of Science in Nursing – PMHNP


Doctor of Nursing Practice – PMHNP (MSN to DNP)


Post-Graduate/APRN Certificate – PMHNP


Whichever degree you choose, it must come from an accredited program. Two organizations grant nursing accreditation in the U.S.: the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

The program should also meet the four coursework requirements outlined by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). ANCC grants the board certification for the psychiatric nurse practitioner role.

ANCC-approved coursework includes:

  • At least 500 faculty-supervised clinical hours
  • Three graduate-level courses in advanced physiology/pathophysiology, advanced health assessment and advanced pharmacology
  • Content in health promotion or maintenance, differential diagnosis and disease management
  • Clinical training in at least two psychotherapeutic treatment modalities

3. Board Certification

Licensed RNs who hold a PMHNP degree can apply for the ANCC board certification in psychiatry/mental health.

The ANCC grants certification through a competency-based test. The exam will evaluate your clinical knowledge and skills in five domains:

  1. Scientific Foundation
  2. Advanced Practice Skills
  3. Diagnosis and Treatment
  4. Psychotherapy and Related Theories
  5. Ethical and Legal Principles

When you pass the test, you will earn the PMHNP credential: Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHNP-BC).

4. State License

As a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner, you can seek licensure in the state where you plan to practice.

The eligibility requirements vary by state. At a minimum, you will need to verify your education, nursing licensure and board certification.

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How Do I Find a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program?

You can find psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner programs by searching the CCNE and ACEN databases of accredited institutions.

Wilkes University offers three CCNE-accredited online NP programs with a concentration in psychiatry/mental health:

Designed for working nurses, the programs will help you fulfill the nation’s growing need for psychiatric and mental health care. You will gain a comprehensive understanding of mental health assessment, psychotherapy, medication management and health promotion.

All of Wilkes’ PMHNP programs offer clinical placement support. Its placement team will provide you with a high-quality placement experience that meets the clinical requirements to prepare you for success as a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner.