What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Do?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

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 to care for people with psychological and behavioral problems. 

As a psychiatric nurse, your tasks will depend on where you work, your training, 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.

Understanding what an employer might expect of you as a psychiatric nurse and where it might take you as a career option can help ensure that it's a good fit for you.

Where do psychiatric nurses work, and what do they do?

As a psychiatric nurse, you can work in various settings, evaluating and supporting your patients’ mental health needs and executing care plans with doctors. You won't treat mental health conditions alone. You'll work 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 mental health service setting, including community agencies, schools, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and clinics. You might work in three common settings: hospitals, correctional facilities, and assisted living facilities.


It’s estimated that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will experience major depression in their lives [1]. While the illnesses range 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 monitor patients closely, 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 rate of mental illness in prison is about four to seven times greater than in the rest of the community [2].  This underscores the need for psychiatric nurses in jails and prisons. Should you pursue a role in a correctional facility, you may work as part of an inpatient psychiatric unit or as an outpatient psych nurse providing evaluations, interventions, and counselling to inmates in the general population.

Assisted living facilities

Canada has more residents over the age of 65 than those under 15, and as that population ages, so does the number of older adults living with mental illness [3]. Patients typically have serious health problems and may be dealing with forms of dementia commonly associated with 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 care for 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 listen, 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 succeed in this role, you must 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 coworkers will rely on you to provide a steady quality of care and maintain constant professionalism.

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 caring for others. Working as a psychiatric nurse has its unique challenges and 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 and salary for psychiatric nurses

According to the Government of Canada Job Bank, the career outlook for psychiatric nurses is Good” to “Very Good” through 2025 [4]. Most Canadian provinces and territories need registered nurses, and several governments are setting aside extra money to hire more nurses. 

Nursing jobs in Canada tend to pay well, but the amount will vary by the province or territory where you work. Nationwide, the median wage for psychiatric nurses is $40.00 per hour, but the median ranges from $28.00 to $50.00 per hour based on location, skill, experience, and more [5].

Steps to becoming a psychiatric nurse

To become a psychiatric nurse, you must first complete a four-year college or university registered nursing program. Next, you may need experience or additional academic training in psychiatry or mental health. 

All Canadian registered nurses must register with a regulatory body in the province or territory where they practice. You must also register with your local psychiatric nurse regulatory body in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon. 

Next steps

If you’re considering a career in mental health nursing, you may want to read or take some courses to become familiar with the conditions, behaviours, 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. Why not start with a course such as Career 911: Your Future Job in Medicine and Healthcare. Once you’ve gained clinical experience, you may consider earning a master’s or doctoral degree to advance your nursing career.

Article sources


Our World in Data. "Mental Health, https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health." Accessed May 21, 2024.

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