What Makes a Good Mental Health Nurse? 5 Key Skills

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A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner is discussing a treatment plan with a patient.

According to the Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, registered nurses (RNs) and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who specialize in psychiatric mental health are the second largest segment of behavioral health professionals in the U.S. As such, they shoulder the important responsibility of providing essential care to those struggling with mental health concerns.

As societal awareness and acceptance of mental illness increases, the stigma traditionally associated with mental health struggles will continue to decrease, encouraging more people to seek help for mental health concerns. The increased demand for mental health care will create a need for qualified professionals to provide it, including psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs).

A combination of well-developed hard and soft skills is the key to what makes a good mental health nurse. The specialized skills and advanced education of a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner are essential to an effective holistic treatment strategy. This ensures individuals seeking assistance with their mental well-being can be confident they’re in capable hands.

What Skills Are Needed in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing?

Katherine Sarsfield, the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program director and assistant professor at Bradley University, qualifies the merits of a mental health nurse practitioner as someone who’s “compassionate, empathetic, trustworthy, reliable, independent, and resilient,” emphasizing the importance of strong character in professionals who hope to succeed in this field.

To excel in psychiatric mental health nursing, one needs to master both the hard and the soft skills mental health nurses require, along with those required in general nursing practice. This combination of hard and soft skills equips students with a professional tool kit that includes everything from the general skills needed to interact with others to the psychiatric expertise mental health nurses apply to their work with patients. Advanced practice nurses such as PMHNPs also need the strong leadership and decision-making skills that come along with being primary mental health service providers.

5 Key Skills That Make a Good Mental Health Nurse

Among the many skills in the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner’s tool kit, five stand out as essential to the deployment of customized health assessments, diagnoses, and care strategies for individual patients.

1. Analytical Skills

A good mental health nurse practitioner must possess strong analytical and deductive skills to detect patterns in thoughts and behaviors in their patients, and then match them to various diagnoses. After diagnosis, psychiatric nurses must create customized health care treatment plans for each patient, such as new coping techniques (positive self-talk, journaling), to address specific concerns. Some PMHNPs may work with psychiatrists or other health professionals to diagnose patients and develop treatment plans.

2. Interpersonal Communication Skills

When a patient presents with mental health concerns, the mental health nurse is responsible for actively listening to those concerns, clarifying any uncertainties, repeating the information to the patient to ensure the patient has been heard, and then talking through the details of the plan together. This latter point may include explaining to the patient anything about the assessment and diagnosis that might not be understood. They’ll also discuss how the customized treatment plan is designed to help improve the patient’s mental health.

3. Problem-Solving Skills

Creative problem-solving is essential to what makes a good mental health nurse. Every patient will have a different story. As such, the ability to adapt to specific issues and develop a customized plan that works for each patient is one of the most important skills for any PMHNP.

4. Teamwork Skills

Psychiatric mental health nurses typically work alongside other health care professionals. They’re responsible for recognizing when they can best help a patient, when one of their peers is better suited to address a patient’s needs, or when to consult physicians and other clinical specialists to determine the best course of action for a patient’s health care plan.

5. Empathy

More of a quality than an acquired skill, empathy is the ability to recognize when people are struggling and to show them compassion. The attribute is important for psychiatric mental health nurses, whose day-to-day work involves interacting with people who are suffering. By practicing and demonstrating empathy, nurses are able to relate to their patients and are motivated to provide the best care possible.

The Challenges of Mental Health Nursing

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed demands and stress on nursing staff, including mental health nurses, across the U.S. The pandemic has exacerbated a preexisting nationwide nursing shortage. NurseJournal.org estimates 1.1 million nurses need to be replaced across the nation; for this reason, aspiring mental health nurses need to cultivate the key skills to meet future demand for mental health care and mitigate the pandemic’s impact on patients and health care professionals.

Provide a Critical Form of Care

If you’re passionate about supporting people experiencing a mental health crisis, you’ll want to consider studying what makes a good mental health nurse and prepare yourself for a career as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). PMHNPs have dedicated their lives to meeting people’s needs when they’re struggling most and have pursued an education to equip themselves to deliver a high level of care.

Bradley University’s PMHNP degree programs are engineered to provide the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in this field. Whether you’re pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), our programs offer the classes you need to make your professional mark.

Students are invited to explore the PMHNP curriculum, which features advanced courses such as Advanced Pathophysiology, Psychopharmacology and Neurophysiology, and Advanced Psychiatric Interviewing and Differential Diagnosis, to learn how to prepare for a rewarding career.

Recommended Reading:

How Nurse Leaders Create Effective and Fair Nurse Scheduling

Ethical Leadership in Education: Resources for Developing Future Education Leaders

When Will a DNP Be Required for Nurse Practitioners?


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

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, About Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

Houston Chronicle, “What Skills Are Pertinent to Psychiatric Nursing?”

Medical News Today, “What to Know About Psychiatric Nurses”

NurseJournal, “Post-Pandemic Nursing Shortage: What It Means for Aspiring Nurses”

Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, “The Current Psychiatric Mental Health Registered Nurse Workforce”