How to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Nursing Resources

A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner is writing down a male patient’s mental health concerns and symptoms.

Students interested in pursuing a career as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and treating patients struggling with mental illness are likely to be drawn to a career as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). This career path not only allows students to address the ongoing shortage of mental health professionals but also helps address the mental health needs of individuals throughout the U.S.

According to data from the Health Resources and Services Administration, more than 135 million people in the U.S. live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals. The shortage is more pronounced in rural counties, and a number of U.S. counties don’t have any mental health professionals practicing within their borders.

“As many mental health providers come closer to retirement age, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are able to provide holistic, cost-effective, evidence-based health care across the lifespan,” said Katherine Sarsfield, assistant professor and program director of the PMHNP program at Bradley University. “Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners can fill a variety of roles, and can help increase access by providing services, in-person or through telehealth, that would otherwise be unavailable.”

Students interested in working as a PMHNP must start by developing the knowledge and skills they’ll need to be successful. Completing an advanced education, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in PMHNP degree from Bradley University, can prepare graduates to provide care to patients of all ages in various locations and mental health settings throughout the nation.

What Is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) states the role of a PMHNP is to “assess, diagnose, and treat the needs of their patients.” PMHNPs may also evaluate the effectiveness of treatment, provide physical assessments, prescribe medications, and provide emergency psychiatric care. Although some professionals in the field may work Monday through Friday during normal business hours, organizations that provide 24-hour care, such as hospitals and substance abuse treatment centers, may need these individuals to work nights, weekends, holidays, and on call.

“Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners can work in a variety of settings, such as in-patient, out-patient, consultant work in emergency departments and primary care offices,” Sarsfield said. “Many, if not most, offer care that is covered by insurance companies.”

Additionally, some PMHNPs working in private practice or specialized hospital settings, such as centers focused on treating patients with schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder, work with specific patient populations. Professionals working in states that offer full-practice or prescriptive authority, often find they can work in a wider range of settings.

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, 24 states and the District of Columbia grant nurse practitioners full practice authority. These states include the following:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Wyoming

Core Skills of a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Individuals interested in learning more about how to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner are likely to find aspiring PMHNPs will be well served by developing a variety of core skills. Examples include attention to detail, leadership and interpersonal skills, empathy, and compassion.

  • Leadership skills. PMHNPs often enjoy autonomy working in positions of authority. Professionals who are comfortable managing nursing staff and assuming leadership roles will be best equipped to help mitigate the effects of the ongoing nursing shortage.
  • Attention to detail. PMHNPs must be able to pick up subtle verbal and nonverbal cues from their patients. They must also be acutely aware of how various treatments and medications can impact their patients’ physical and psychological conditions.
  • Interpersonal skills. Professionals in this field often work with patients of different ages and socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, and collaborate with other health care staff, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and family care physicians. Individuals with strong interpersonal skills are most likely to be successful.
  • Empathy and compassion. Patients seeking mental health care are often experiencing various emotions, like fear, nervousness, and embarrassment. PMHNPs must be caring and sympathetic when interacting with patients.

Steps to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Aspiring PMHNPs can choose from three educational pathways. Registered nurses (RN) with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing related field, such as psychology, data science, or mathematics, can opt for a degree program that offers bridge courses, such as an online RN to MSN PMHNP. Alternatively, baccalaureate-prepared nurses with a current RN license can choose from an online BSN to MSN PMHNP or an online DNP PMHNP.

The time it takes students to complete their PMHNP program can vary based on factors such as the credit hour requirements, the clinical hour requirements, and whether an individual is enrolled as a full-time or part-time student. Additionally, many degree programs require applicants to possess a specified amount of real-world work experience, as students experienced in managing deadlines and handling professional and familial pressures are likely to be the most successful.

After completing a PMHNP degree, graduates must also pass the nurse practitioner licensing exam. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) administers the computer-based test, which comprises 175 questions, is 3.5 hours long, and is offered throughout the year at testing locations across the country. The PMHNP credential is valid for five years. To maintain their professional license, individuals must meet certain renewal requirements, such as completing continuing education hours, to maintain their certification.

Prepare for a Career as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

The nursing and mental health professional shortage is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Consequently, the need for APRNs and APRNs who specialize in psychiatric mental health is expected to remain strong.

Students researching how to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner will find they must start by developing the knowledge and skills they’ll need to be successful. Discover how Bradley University’s online RN to MSN PMHNP, BSN to MSN PMHNP, and BSN to DNP PMHNP degree programs can prepare you for the job you want.

Recommended Reading:

Nurse Practitioner Specialties: Types of Nurse Practitioner Roles and Responsibilities

Principles of Nursing Leadership: Jobs and Trends

When Will a DNP Be Required for Nurse Practitioners?


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

American Nurses Credentialing Center, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC)

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, Report: Shortage of Trained Professionals a Growing Threat to U.S. Mental Health System

GoodTherapy, Is There a Shortage of Mental Health Professionals in America?

Health Resources and Services Administration, Shortage Areas

Psychiatric Times, “Partnering With Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners”

The Conversation, “Amid a Ranging Pandemic, the U.S. Faces a Nursing Shortage. Can We Close the Gap?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners