Psychiatric Nurse Career Guide

    Psychiatric Nurse Career Guide

    It takes a special form of caring to be a psychiatric (psych), nurse. People with mental health issues rely on psych nurses to manage their complex physical and emotional needs. Psych nursing is a fulfilling career that offers variety and new challenges each day.

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    Part OneWhat is a psychiatric nurse?

    Psych nurses work with children, teens, and adults of all ages. They are skilled in treating anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, to name a few. 

    Also known as psychiatric-mental health nurses (PMHNs) American Psychiatric Nurses Association, psych nurses provide mental health services for individuals and communities. They must have good communication and relationship skills, flexibility, openness towards diverse lifestyles, and a strong foundation in the basic and behavioral sciences. 

    Part TwoWhat is the salary range for psych nurses?

    Psych nurse salaries depend on your level of education, years of experience, size of employer, and where you live and work. In May 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the range for RN salaries as $47,120 to $102,990. The mean annual income for a nurse working in the psychiatric or substance abuse hospital setting was $69,460. 

    Pay differentials boost nursing salaries. They are added to your base hourly rate for evening or night shifts, charge duties, or for mentoring new nurses. Sometimes higher salaries are offered for having a BSN or MSN. Sign-on bonuses may be available depending on the demand for nurses. And in some work settings, nurses are eligible for overtime pay. 

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    The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the top five states for RN pay are:













    Look at the big picture when you consider total compensation. Also consider continuing education or tuition support, health insurance coverage, and the number of paid days off. Travel nursing can boost salary for adventurous nurses with flexibility in location and lifestyle. 

    Advanced practice nurses earn higher salaries, and this is true for psych nursing.  These nurses are called certified nurse practitioners (CNPs) or clinical nurse specialists (CNSs), depending on the state where you live. 

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics, reports that in 2016, the median annual income for nurse practitioners was $107,460. And according to, the median annual CNS salary in January 2017 was $98,997 (range $89,522-$108,428). 

    Advanced practice salaries are affected by the same factors that shape RN salaries nationwide.

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    Part ThreeWhat is the career outlook for psychiatric nurses?

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow at a rate of 16 percent through 2024 – much faster than the average for all jobs. There is a shortage of psych nurses, with baby boomer nurses nearing retirement and the growing health demands of our aging population.  

    Public awareness about mental health is increasing, no doubt prompting more people to seek help. In 2015, an estimated 43.8 million adults in the U.S. (age 18 or older) were diagnosed with mental illness within the past year. This is nearly 18 percent of Americans, excluding issues of substance and alcohol abuse, children, and adolescents. 

    Clearly, there will be future demand for psychiatric nursing at all levels, especially given the current shortage of qualified nurses.


    Part Four How do I become a psychiatric nurse?

    First, you must complete an entry-level nursing program. Most programs offer a clinical rotation in psych nursing, which lets you see what it’s like to work in the field. Volunteering in an agency that serves people with mental health issues can also provide insight into working with these patients.

    To become a registered nurse you must:

    • Graduate from a two- year program for an associate’s degree in nursing, a three-year program for a diploma in nursing (usually hospital-based), or a four-year college or university program leading to a bachelor’s degree in nursing
    • Take the RN licensing exam after graduation, also known as the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). The NCLEX is a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses in the United States and Canada
    • Once you pass this exam, you may apply for your first nursing job

    Certification in psych nursing. If you want to hone your skills even further, you can become certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers this credential. 

    Certification requires the following, and is valid for five years: 

    • An active RN license 
    • Two years of practice as a full-time RN 
    • A minimum of 2,000 hours in clinical psych nursing practice within three years
    • 30 hours of continuing education in psych nursing within three years 

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    Advanced Practice Psych Nursing

    If you want to expand your scope of practice and earning potential, become an advanced practice psych nurse. The title is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP-BC) or psychiatric mental health clinical nurse specialist (PMHCNS-BC), depending on your state. See our article, CNS vs. CNP for more info on these roles. Review your state’s guidelines via the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

    Advanced practice psych nurses have a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing. The ANCC also issues certification for these nurses.

    Choosing a graduate school is a big decision. Verify that your school is accredited by the (American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) or the (National League for Nursing (NLN). For a listing of programs nationally, check the listing the (APNA) provides on its website, searchable by state.  

    If you’re searching for top-ranked schools of nursing, check out the U.S. News & World Report listings. In 2016-2017, top graduate programs in psychiatric nursing were:

    • University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
    • Rush University (Chicago, IL)
    • Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN)
    • Yale University (New Haven, CT)
    • Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD)

    Part FiveWhat is it like to be a psychiatric nurse?

    Psych nurses are detail-oriented, conscientious, and able to juggle many priorities. The ability to manage your own emotional responses in stressful situations –with escalating patients, for example  –  is a must. A love of constant learning about new therapies, including medications and their use, is a plus. 

    Developing good self-care practices is crucial in keeping professional and personal balance. Being flexible and open to patients from many cultural backgrounds, income levels, and value systems are “musts” for a successful psych nursing career.

    Psych nurses have many choices when it comes to work setting:

    • Hospitals – medical centers and VA hospitals
    • Specialty psychiatric or substance abuse hospitals
    • Private practices
    • Community mental health centers
    • Primary care offices
    • State and federal facilities (prisons and other agencies, including the court system – for forensic and other psych nurses)

    As a psych nurse you may:

    • Assess patient status
    • Provide care based on treatment and nursing care plans
    • Provide counseling and lead therapeutic groups
    • Give medication and assess for responses and side effects
    • Teach patients or clients coping skills 
    • Work closely with other members of the healthcare team
    • Advanced practice psych nurses work in primary care and other settings.
    • Your responsibilities require you to work independently and with others: 
    • Assess and diagnose mental health conditions
    • Design and carry out treatment plans
    • Provide primary health care
    • Prescribe medications 
    • Order and interpret diagnostic tests
    • Provide psychotherapy
    • Make referrals as appropriate

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    Part SixWhat are the continuing education requirements for psychiatric nurses?

    Clinical practice and continuing education requirements for renewing a nursing license, certification, and advanced practice certification vary by state and credentialing agency.

    Check with your state board and professional organization for the rules on keeping your RN license and certification up to date. You can also visit our Continuing Nursing Education Guide for details. 

    Part SevenWhere can I learn more about psychiatric nursing?

    Learn more about psych nursing by searching the web, and talking with nurses currently working in the field. Contact your state chapter of the APNA and ask to speak with a psych nurse in your area. 

    Also, reach out to your local hospital or school of nursing to find out about any upcoming career fairs. Set up an appointment with a student advisor or career counselor at your local college or university. 

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    Part EightWhere can I find the best psychiatric nurse jobs?

    Many sources can get you started on your search for psych nursing positions. First, check the “Careers” pages of websites for hospitals and agencies that interest you. Many online resources are available these days, including nursing social media sites, career sites, and dedicated nursing career sites such as our job board.  

    A 2012 research effort found that states in the South and the West will be most affected by the nursing shortage. The 12 states with the most acute shortages predicted are Florida, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico. Check out these locations for opportunities – your ideal psych nursing job may await you.

    Psych nursing is a versatile career path that offers variety in patients, work settings, and skills. Psych nurses play a vital role in improving the health and lives of patients, families, and communities. As a psych nurse you’ll know that your daily efforts improve the well-being of our society as a whole.

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