What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Do?

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Psychiatric nurses work in the mental health nursing field to care for and support patients with mental illnesses. Discover what it takes to become a psychiatric nurse in this guide.

[Featured Image]: A psychiatric nurse wearing a green uniform, and a stethoscope around her neck is taking care of a patient with short white hair and wearing a brown blouse.

A psychiatric nurse provides care and supports the physical and mental health of individuals, groups, families, and communities with and affected by mental health conditions. Sometimes referred to as psychiatric mental health nurses or psych nurses, these professionals receive specialized training that helps prepare them to take on additional responsibilities needed to care for people with psychological and behavioral problems. 

As a psychiatric nurse, your tasks will depend on where you work, the training you've had, and your patients' needs. Common duties include observing patients, administering medications, and helping with self-care and general physical health. It can be a varied and rewarding career requiring neurobiological, psychosocial, and nursing expertise.

To make sure it’s a good fit for you, it helps to understand what might be expected of you as a psychiatric nurse and where it might take you as a career option.  

Where do psychiatric nurses work and what do they do?

As a psychiatric nurse, you might work in many different settings, evaluating and supporting your patients’ mental health needs and working with doctors to execute care plans. As a mental health nurse, you won't treat mental health conditions on your own. You'll work in tandem with a team of health care professionals, including psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and social workers, to create, implement, and monitor treatment and care plans.

A few of the everyday things you might do in this role include:

  • Conducting intake screening and evaluation

  • Working with interdisciplinary teams

  • Educating patients and their families

  • Providing community education

  • Practicing crisis intervention

  • Providing case management

  • Promoting general/overall health 

  • Administering and monitoring treatment regimes

  • Teaching self-care and helping patients achieve individual goals

As a psychiatric nurse, you can expect to promote mental health in various ways. You might work with children exposed to trauma, soldiers coming home from combat, supporting adults and teenagers with mental illness, and more.

Your day-to-day duties will depend largely on where you choose to work. Psych nurses may work in any setting that provides mental health services, including federal agencies, schools, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and clinics. Three common settings you might work in include hospitals, correctional facilities, and assisted living facilities.

Hospitals

Roughly one in five people in the US [1], and more than 10 percent of the global population [2], live with mental illness. While the severity ranges from mild to severe, and many people with mental illness won’t require inpatient care, hospitalization is an available treatment option.

If you work as a psychiatric nurse in an inpatient treatment center or hospital, you’ll likely work closely with other care team members. You’ll closely monitor patients, ensuring they've received an accurate diagnosis and subsequently adjust or stabilize their medications. Other common tasks include performing safety and risk assessments, managing meds, and assisting with patients' grooming and bathing.

Correctional facilities

The number of mentally ill people in correctional facilities is roughly three times higher than those in hospitals, according to research published by the Treatment Advocacy Center [3]. This underscores the need for psychiatric nurses in jail and prison settings. Should you pursue a role in a correctional facility, you may work as part of an inpatient psychiatric unit within the facility, or you could work as an outpatient psych nurse providing evaluations, interventions, and counseling to inmates who reside in the general population.

Assisted living facilities

Anywhere from 65 percent to 91 percent of residents in long-term care facilities may have mental health problems, according to research published by the National Library of Medicine [4]. Patients typically have serious health problems and may be dealing with forms of dementia, which is commonly associated with forms of depression and anxiety. As a psych nurse in a nursing home or assisted living facility, you will likely consult with health professionals and psychiatrists to manage patients' mental and physical health, create and monitor treatment plans, and manage medications.

What does it take to be successful as a psychiatric nurse?

To be successful as a psych nurse, you’ll need a combination of education and experience to develop essential skills and the passion and drive to work in a potentially stressful environment. In addition to having a solid foundation in general nursing and holding an active license as a registered nurse, it’s also helpful to cultivate skills such as: 

  • Critical thinking: Every patient has unique psychological needs. As a psych nurse, you'll need to approach each patient using a personalized approach based on assessments and psychiatric nursing techniques.

  • Compassion and empathy: As a psych nurse, you must never forget you're treating a person's mind in addition to their emotions and personality. You'll need to be able to listen and try to understand patients' points of view and use interpersonal skills to build rapport with patients and their families.

  • Interest in mental health nursing: To be successful in this role, you need to be passionate about and interested in what you're doing. This isn't just a job you choose for the paycheck. You should have a passion for helping others with their mental health struggles, a drive to understand and continue learning about the brain and mental illnesses, and the desire to help impact change in mental health care.

  • Reliability and consistency: Your patients and your coworkers will rely on you to provide steady quality of care and maintain a constant level of professionalism.

Advancing your career as a psychiatric nurse

Several options are available if you want to expand the scope of your mental health nursing career. One way is to specialize. You may choose an area of focus such as child and adolescent mental health, acute care, military mental health, substance use disorders, or psychiatric care for the elderly. You might also choose to move into a psychiatric mental health advanced practice registered nurse (PMH-APRN) position. The role requires advanced education and involves tasks like consulting or working as a liaison, providing consultations and mental health services to patients and families, and collaborating with integrated health care providers. 

You may also opt to become an advanced practice psychiatric nurse, also known as a psychiatric mental health clinical nurse specialist or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, depending upon the state in which you work. In that case, you’ll need a master’s degree or a doctoral degree in nursing. You may also pursue certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. 

Psychiatric nurse vs. psychiatric nurse practitioner

As a psych RN, you'll play an essential role in caring for patients with mental and behavioral health needs. As a psych RN, you'll work with psychiatrists, social workers, and psychiatric nurse practitioners who oversee cases, determine diagnoses, and order treatments. If you choose to advance your career and become a psych nurse practitioner, the level of care you provide differs. As a psych nurse practitioner, you can:

  • Write prescriptions

  • Perform advanced assessments

  • Design and order treatment and care plans

  • Diagnose conditions

  • Provide psychotherapy or counseling

Pros and cons

Nursing, in general, is not an easy field. It requires long hours, and there's a level of stress that comes with taking care of other people. Working as a psychiatric nurse has its unique challenges. It also has its rewards. A few of the pros and cons of working as a psychiatric nurse include:

  • Pro: Higher pay and increased job satisfaction

  • Con: Higher need for patience, attentiveness, and endurance

  • Pro: Potential for job growth and security

  • Con: You may work in volatile, higher-risk settings

  • Pro: You can work in a variety of settings  

Career outlook for psychiatric nurses

There’s a shortage of trained professionals to help cope with mental and behavioral health needs. In this role, you can expect ongoing demand for your services and expertise. The job outlook, or growth rate, for jobs for registered nurses is expected to be 9 percent, or about as fast as average, between 2020 and 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [5]. Jobs for nurse practitioners are expected to grow by 45 percent between 2020 and 2030, according to the BLS [6].

Salary outlook

There’s a strong demand for psych nurses. There’s also a strong earning potential, which may be impacted by where you work and if you choose to specialize. Across America, psychiatric nurses make anywhere from $29,000 to $390,000 or more, although the average annual salary is $104,201, according to Glassdoor [7]. Psychiatric nurse practitioners make an average annual salary of $120,829 according to Glassdoor [8].

Steps to becoming a psychiatric nurse

To be a psychiatric nurse, you must first get your registered nurse (RN) license. To become an RN, you need to graduate with at least an associate's degree in nursing from an accredited program. You’ll also complete additional training and can typically expect that employers will require you to gain some professional experience in the field before getting a job as a psychiatric nurse. 

Read more: How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Education: 2, 3, and 4-year program options

Your education is an excellent starting point on the path to becoming a psychiatric nurse. To qualify for the national nursing exam (NCLEX-RN), you must graduate from a nursing program. Some of the most common options include:

  • Completing a two-year nursing degree program to earn your associate degree

  • Completing a three-year nursing diploma program, which is typically a hospital-based program

  • Completing a four-year nursing degree program to get your bachelor's degree (BSN)

  • Completing an accelerated BSN program if you already have a bachelor's degree in another subject, a process that typically takes 14 to 15 months on average

Read more: How to Get Into Nursing School: Your Guide to a Degree

Clinical experience and practice

Once you've passed the RN license exam, you'll need to gain clinical experience. Most employers look for you to have at least two years of working as a full-time RN before hiring you to work in mental health nursing. Additionally, to become certified as a psych nurse through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, you'll also need to complete 2,000 hours of clinical experience in a psychiatric setting within three years of passing the NCLEX-RN as part of the prerequisites.

Continuing education

Another requirement to become certified as a psychiatric nurse is completing 30 hours of psychiatric nursing-specific continuing education within three years of passing the NCLEX-RN. You will also be required to complete continuing education on an ongoing basis to maintain the certification and maintain your RN license.

Next steps

If you’re considering a career in mental health nursing, you may want to do some reading or take some courses to become familiar with the conditions, behaviors, and issues you’re likely to face.

To be successful in this role, you should be passionate about helping people with mental health issues and confident in your knowledge of nursing practices and how the brain works. Once you’ve gained clinical experience, you may consider earning a master’s or doctoral degree to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner to advance your career. 

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Article sources

1. National Institute of Mental Health. “Mental Illness, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.” Accessed March 25, 2022.

2. Our World in Data. “Mental Health, https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health.” Accessed March 25, 2022.

3. Treatment Advocacy Center. “Serious Mental Illness Prevalence in Jails and Prisons, https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/evidence-and-research/learn-more-about/3695.” Accessed March 25, 2022. 

4. National Library of Medicine. “Quality of Mental Health Care for Nursing Home Residents: A Literature Review, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2981653/.” Accessed March 25, 2022.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Registered Nurses: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm.” Accessed March 25, 2022.

6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners: Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm.” Accessed March 25, 2022. 

7. Glassdoor. “Salary: Registered Psychiatric Nurse (March 2022), https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/registered-psychiatric-nurse-salary-SRCH_KO0,28.htm.” Accessed March 25, 2022. 

8. Glassdoor. “Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/psychiatric-nurse-practitioner-salary-SRCH_KO0,30.htm.” Accessed March 25, 2022.

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