A psychiatric nurse (PN) is a registered nurse who is licensed to care for patients with mental illnesses. Psychiatric nurses evaluate, diagnose and prescribe medications for people suffering all forms of mental disorders, including major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. PNs may also provide recommendations regarding the kind of psychotherapy a patient would need that appropriately addresses their mental illness.
Psychiatric nurses can also become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who specialize in psychiatric nursing by earning a doctoral degree. APRNs are qualified to work in a private practice or as department leads in hospitals or mental institutions.
Psychiatric nurses are also referred to as mental health nurses, psychiatric registered nurses and inpatient psychiatric nurses.
According to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA), a psychiatric nurse is expected to:
PNs work in hospitals with psychiatric wards, psychiatric institutions, halfway homes for patients who do not need 24-hour care and prisons. They are also found working for home health care companies providing in-home assistance for mentally ill children and adults and community outpatient mental health agencies. Special schools serving children and teens suffering mental and emotional problems may hire psychiatric nurses to work in conjunction with registered nurses and counselors.
Working as a psychiatric nurse in a correctional facility is much more challenging than working in other venues. PNs or the attending psychiatrist must perform biopsychosocial assessments for each prisoner, determine if the prisoner is suffering suicidal ideation and prescribe medications if the prisoner is found to have an undiagnosed mental health issue. With U.S. prisons being understaffed and overcrowded, correctional PNs are typically given extra duties to perform as well as extended independence regarding their ability to perform their duties. Consequently, working as a prison PN often pays better than working as a PN in a hospital or institution but with the extra pay comes long hours and often volatile conditions.
Psychiatric patients require extraordinary compassion and patience from nurses. PNs also need to rely on input from the patient’s family members to fully understand why the patient is suffering from a mental illness. In many cases, mentally ill individuals have endured abusive childhoods, traumatic life episodes and long-term substance addiction. A psychiatric nurse endeavors to empower and validate a patient’s sense of identity and independence by providing positive reinforcement and helping them improve coping skills.
They must also educate patients about their particular mental illness and reiterate the fact that taking medication as prescribed is essential to preventing symptoms from returning. Since antidepressants and antipsychotic medications can cause unwanted side effects, patients may think they no longer need their medications after the drugs start working. This is the primary reason why psychiatric nurses pay close attention to the actions and speech pathologies of patients who claim to be taking their medications but exhibit worsening behavior.
The first step in obtaining a psychiatric nurse license is to get a bachelor’s degree in registered nursing and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. Most registered nurses work as RNs and gain general nursing experience for several years before they return to school and take courses necessary to get their PN license.
The Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (RN-BC) is commonly required by certain healthcare facilities after the nurse has worked a set number of hours at that facility. To be eligible for the RN-PN license, you must have worked at least two years (full time) as an RN, acquired at least 2,000 hours of clinical experience in a psychiatric nursing environment within the past three years and completed 30 or more hours of continuing education in psychiatric/mental health nursing. PNs working on a master or doctorate degree will need to complete additional education in a master of science nursing program that usually takes two to three years.
Psychiatric nurse certification is available from the American Nurses Credential Center (ANCC). Requirements for taking the certification examination also include having a current and active registered nurse license. Once you obtain your PN license, it remains valid for five years in most states.
In addition to earning a psychiatric nurse license, PNs must also pass a certification examination offered by the U.S. Federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Voluntary board certifications are available for psychiatric nurses. State laws differ regarding what kind of certifications and clinical experience PNs need to legally work as a psychiatric nurse. For example, what a mental institution operating in Alabama requires for a PN to work for them may differ from what the same kind of institution operating in California requires.
The American Psychiatric Nurses Association reports that a psychiatric nurse will earn approximately $40,000 annually as an entry-level PN. However, geographical location influences hourly wages of psychiatric nurses, with New England and West/East coast states paying more than Midwest and southern states. Advanced practice psychiatric nurses can expect to make between $60,000 and $70,000 annually.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide employment outlook statistics specifically for psychiatric nurses but states that overall, the field of registered nursing and associated nursing positions is expected to rise by nearly 20 percent over the next decade. Strained by the large and aging Baby Boomers population, the healthcare system is already understaffed. Demand for psychiatric nurses is not only escalating due to increasing numbers of both teens and adults being diagnosed with a mental illness but also because of more people living well into their 80s and 90s and suffering various forms of dementia.
Students interested in becoming a psychiatric nurse will find helpful information from the following resources:
If you’re looking for a list of programs, check out our list of the best BSN degree programs in the United States to help you get started. The APNA also provides a comprehensive overview of psychiatric-mental health nursing programs in every U.S. state. Some of these programs include:
If you are looking for a rewarding yet challenging career in healthcare that always has positions to fill in a variety of environments, psychiatric nursing may be right for you. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 20 percent of all adults in the United States are currently suffering from some kind of mental illness. That’s nearly 47 million individuals over the age of 18 who will likely need psychiatric help at some point in their lives.
The highest prevalence of mental illness affects mostly young adults between 18 and 25 years old, compared to about 14 percent of adults over 50. Psychologists and sociologists studying the exponential rise in mental illness over the past 30 years aren’t sure what is fueling the epidemic but speculate it is due to numerous factors, including job losses due to automation, the opioid crisis and the widespread use of social media among young adults.
After working as a registered nurse for several years, you might develop an interest in psychiatric nursing. If you would like to learn more about the worthwhile and fulfilling career field of psychiatric nursing, please contact us today. We are always happy to answer your questions and help you find the program that is right for you.