Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner: Programs and Requirements

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There is growing demand for mental health services in the U.S. According to a national survey on drug use and health from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 43.4 million adults aged 18 or older were living with a mental illness in 2015. That number represents nearly 18 percent of all adults in the country. The report further found that 9.8 million adults were living with a serious mental illness during the same period.

In line with this growing need, the country is facing an escalating shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health providers, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“We face a broad range of mental health issues, including the acute problems of opioid addiction and increasing rates of depression and suicide,” Dr. Darrell Kirch, a psychiatrist and AAMC president and CEO told the AAMC. “I think one of the great tragedies is that some of the most seriously mentally ill individuals are homeless or are caught in a revolving door between prison and the street.”

As an increasing number of Americans from all backgrounds seek mental health services, they need qualified providers who are capable of delivering the specialized type of care to address these challenges. To ensure that people in the U.S. are able to access the services they need to safeguard their mental and emotional well-being, this shortage of qualified professionals must be addressed.

While many mental health patients are cared for by psychologists and psychiatrists, there are a growing number of other professionals who practice in this area of medicine. Among these roles is that of the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). A PMHNP position can be a natural fit for nurses who are interested in the psychiatric field and want to advance their career.

If you are interested in pursuing a career as a PMHNP, a psychiatric nurse practitioner program such as a Master of Science degree in Nursing with Specialization in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner can help you jumpstart a rewarding career treating patients with mental health needs.

What Is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

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In the U.S., nurse practitioners are playing an increasingly important role in providing high-quality, cost-effective care to patients in a variety of fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for NPs is expected to grow by 31 percent between 2016 and 2026, adding more than 64,000 new positions to the job market. This is significantly higher than the average rate of job growth across all fields in the country.

NPs are advanced practice nurses who typically hold either a master’s or doctorate degree. They can practice as providers in a variety of specialties, including emergency medicine, family medicine, women’s health, adult gerontology, pediatrics, and psychiatry.

In the field of mental health care, nurse practitioners who work in mental health play an important part in ensuring that patients with psychiatric challenges receive the high-quality, coordinated, safe care they need to live a healthy and happy life.

PMHNPs generally work as an independent member of a healthcare team to provide evidence-based services and therapies to patients with mental health needs. They manage a variety of conditions presented by individuals with behavioral health issues along all stages of the lifespan. This includes acute, and often lasting, long-term issues. Typical responsibilities include evaluating, diagnosing, and creating care plans for patients who have complex psychiatric and any accompanying medical issues. Treatment may involve prescribing psycho pharmacologic agents, and managing their use.

Patient advocacy is another important part of the PMHNP’s role. This often includes engaging with both patients and their families, particularly through the recovery process, which can often include ensuring that the patient and any family members are actively following up with any care plan or other directives. PMNHPs are frequently additionally involved in efforts to improve safety and quality at the local, regional, or even national level.

How to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Are you interested in pursuing a career as a PMNHP? If you have not yet qualified as a registered nurse or worked in the health care field, you will typically need to start by enrolling in an Associate’s or Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program and passing the licensing exam.

If you have already met those requirements, you are well on your way to fulfilling the qualifications and experience you need. To continue on the path toward a PMHNP career, you will need to fulfill the academic requirements, gain experience in the field, and complete certification before applying to positions.

  1. Fulfill the academic requirements. Unless you already hold an undergraduate degree, your first step is to earn your BSN. Depending on the program and course load you choose, this can typically be accomplished in two to four years. If you are already working as an RN, you can enroll in an accelerated RN to BSN online degree program to speed up the process. At that point, you will need to move on to a graduate-level nursing degree. A minimum of an MSN is required to become a psychiatric NP. Look for a program that offers an emphasis or specialization in psychiatric nursing practice, which will prepare you to pass the psychiatric-mental health licensing exam after graduation. While some nurses do go on to earn a doctorate in this area of practice, it is rarely required for roles outside of academia and research. An MSN will usually suffice for clinical practice.
  2. Gain experience working as a registered nurse. While not necessarily a requirement, gaining experience working in the field will help prepare you for eventual work as an NP. Much of your experience in general nursing practice should typically be completed prior to enrolling in an MSN program. If possible, look for opportunities to work with mental health patients in some capacity to gain exposure to the specialty.
  3. Complete Board Certification in Psychiatric-Mental Health. In addition to current Registered Nurse licensure, you must earn certification in psychiatric-mental health from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) in order to practice as a PMHNP. This competency-based examination measures your entry-level clinical knowledge and skills in the area of psychiatry-mental health.
  4. Apply for psychiatric NP roles. Once these requirements are met, you will be ready to apply to new roles as a psychiatric NP in a variety of health care settings.

Ready to get started? Whether you have already completed a BSN or still need to pursue an undergraduate nursing degree, it is never too early to start researching psychiatric-mental health nursing programs at the graduate level and learning about your options.

Finding the Right Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Program

When it comes to pursuing a career as a psychiatric NP, the program you choose will play a significant role in shaping your mental health care skills and knowledge. If you choose to pursue a career as a PMHNP through a master’s degree, you will need to choose a program with an emphasis or specialization in mental-health psychiatric nursing or something similar in order to pass the certification exam upon graduation.

PMHNP programs are designed for BSN-certified nurses who are ready to further their knowledge, education, and skills to practice in the area of psychiatry and mental health. The coursework is designed to prepare you to drive outcomes in a variety of areas in the field, including patient safety and quality.

For example, the program learning outcomes for national’s MSN with Specialization in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner – Lifespan are as follows:

  1. Synthesize knowledge from physical and behavioral sciences as a basis for advanced nursing practice in the clinical setting.
  2. Create evidence-based strategies at the population, communication, organizational, family and patient level for improving outcomes through disease prevention and health promotion.
  3. Use current technologies to drive optimal outcomes through documented care, delivery, and enhancement.
  4. Promote quality, effective, and safe patient care by providing systems and organizational leadership to efforts related to critical and ethical decision making, health care team working relationships, and other current challenges.
  5. Set an example for inter professional teams in the coordination and collaboration of care delivery for complex, multi-need communities, families, and patients.
  6. Create evidence-based clinical behavioral health care and prevention services for individuals, families, and identified populations that are client-centered and culturally appropriate.

When you enroll in a psychiatric nurse practitioner program, you will study a variety of topics pertinent to your future career, including subjects such as:

  • Advanced physical assessment
  • Advanced pathophysiology
  • Advanced pharmacology
  • Psychopharmacology in mental health care
  • Mental health care in adults/aging adults
  • Mental health care of children/adolescents
  • Diversity issues in advanced practice nursing
  • Psychotherapy

MSN programs typically take about two years to complete, though the exact length depends on the program and your course load. It will generally take approximately the same length of time to complete a master’s level degree with a psychiatric-mental health emphasis, though the specialization may require additional courses.

If you enroll in the National University PMHP program, you will be eligible to sit for the ANCC Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Lifespan) examination upon completion of your degree.

The Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certificate

While an MSN program with a specialization in mental health is perhaps the most common path to a career as a PMHNP, it is not your only option for obtaining this position. If you have already completed an MSN, Doctor of Nursing Practice, or Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing, a psychiatric nurse practitioner program that is not degree-based is an option. A Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certificate can help advance your specific knowledge, education, and skills in mental health to prepare you for an advanced practice PMHNP role.

For example, the National University PMHNP Certificate is a 46.5-quarter unit program designed to equip graduate-level advanced practice nurses with the skills and knowledge required to provide primary mental health care for individuals, groups, and populations across the lifespan.

The certificate program includes the following core requisite courses:

  • Advanced Physical Assessment
  • Advanced Pharmacology I
  • Advanced Pathophysiology
  • Psychopharmacology in MH Care
  • Adults/Aging Adults
  • MH Care: Children/Adolescents
  • Introduction to Psychotherapy

Upon completion of the program, you will receive a PMHNP Certificate of Completion, as opposed to a formal nursing degree. But combined with the higher nursing degree you earned previously, the certificate will enable you to qualify for most positions in this clinical specialty.

As with the MSN program, graduates of National’s Post-Graduate PMHNP Certificate Program are eligible to sit for the ANCC Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner competency-based test after completing the program.

Characteristics of a Good Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

To succeed in a career as a psychiatric NP, you need more than degrees and technical knowledge. You also need well-developed soft skills — the interpersonal abilities that help you work well with others.

The following soft skills are important to excel in a career as a psychiatric NP.

  • Ability to work independently: As a PMHNP, you will work as part of a health care team, but often function independently of the other members. As such, you will need the confidence and skills to frequently manage your own work and responsibilities.
  • Communication: To excel in the workplace, you will need to be able to communicate effectively with both your patients and other members of your health care team to ensure positive outcomes.
  • Problem-solving: From the challenges faced by your patients to logistical difficulties behind-the-scenes, you will need strong problem-solving skills to work as a PMHNP.
  • Time management: As in any health care setting, balancing the many demands on your time is critical in this specialty. Time management skills will help you not only provide the best care to your patients but contribute to your own work-life balance.

Want to further develop these abilities? The course work and other requirements of a psychiatric nurse practitioner program can provide valuable opportunities to refine your soft skills as you work to complete your degree.

While soft skills are important for your performance as an NP, they provide more than just benefits to your patients. These abilities are increasingly valued by employers, which means that they can help you stand out as an applicant when interviewing for new roles.

Working as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

With the increasing demand for NPs, an MSN is a valuable asset when searching for a job. Adding a PMHNP specialization to your degree can open up more opportunities for work in the mental health setting.

As a PMHNP, you can find employment in a variety of settings, ranging from large health care organizations to small offices. These options include:

  • Psychiatric and behavioral treatment clinics
  • Private practices or corporations
  • Public health agencies
  • Residential treatment facilities
  • Family practices or clinics
  • Correctional facilities

Rather than taking a position in a clinical setting, some NPs with mental health specialization choose to go into consulting for public or private organizations, working either independently or as part of a firm.

The salary for these roles can vary due to a variety of factors, including experience level, job title, work setting, and location. However, earning potential across the board tends to be high. According to the job and salary website Payscale, the average annual salary of a psychiatric nurse practitioner is $100,049. This is about $30,000 more a year than the median annual salary of an RN, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Your PMHNP Degree at National University

When it comes to a psychiatric nurse practitioner program, California offers numerous options for aspiring PMHNPs. To jump start your career, consider enrolling in a psychiatric nurse practitioner program through National University to earn your MSN with psychiatry mental health emphasis or a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner certificate.

The National MSN program is approved by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and created in line with the standards for advanced practice nursing graduate education by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Through the added specialization, you benefit from the advanced practice focus of the core MSN curriculum, with additional courses designed to equip you for PMHNP practice. These subject-specific classes cover topics such as pathophysiology, pharmacology, and mental healthcare in order to prepare you to practice in the mental health setting.

This graduate-level nursing degree typically takes about two years to complete, though the exact length will depend on your course load. And when considering National’s psychiatric nurse practitioner programs, California residency is not a requirement. To make it as convenient as possible to pursue your MSN, National offers online courses, classes at a physical campus, or a combination of the two, to help ensure that you are equipped with the advanced practice skills you will need to assume a leadership position in the psychiatric-mental health nursing field.

Ready to learn more about pursuing your MSN degree with a specialization in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Lifespan or a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certificate through National University? Fill out the information form online and an admissions advisor will contact you soon to help you determine which psychiatric nurse practitioner program is the right choice for your career goals.

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