How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

11 Min Read Published January 15, 2024
How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

Psychiatric nurses help mental health patients manage their complex physical and emotional needs. Not only is psychiatric nursing a fulfilling career, but it also offers variety and new challenges each day.

If you're interested in joining this lucrative and rewarding nursing specialty, you're in the right place. In this article, we'll discuss how to become a psychiatric nurse, including psych RN requirements, salary expectations, necessary skills, and top programs. Read on to learn about how to reach your psych nursing career goals.

Psych Nurse Fast Facts

Annual Salary


Career Outlook

6% Growth 2022-2032

Program Length

2-4 Years


What is a Psychiatric Nurse?

Also called psychiatric mental health nurses (PMHNs), a psychiatric nurse provides mental health services to individuals and communities. Psych nurses are skilled mental health professionals who help treat conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse.

As a psych nurse, you may work with patients of all ages - from children to teens and adults. You won't just need a strong foundation in basic and behavioral sciences to work in this specialty. Other skills you'll need to foster include communication, flexibility, and open-mindedness about diverse lifestyles.

Youtube video

Psychiatric Nurse Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that registered nurses (RNs) earn an average annual salary of $81,220 or $39.05 per hour in May 2022. While the BLS includes psych RNs in this data, they do not differentiate between different nursing specialties. 

Your psychiatric nurse salary will vary depending on your education, years of experience, employer, and location. Payscale estimates that PMHNs earn $73,584, while Indeed estimates an average closer to $138,094 annually, making them one of the highest-paying nursing careers.

>> Show Me Online Psychiatric Nursing Programs

Highest Paying States for RN Salaries


*Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), May 2022; Extracted 9 Sep 2023

Remember, your psychiatric nurse salary isn't just a dollar amount. A total compensation package may include health and dental insurance, a retirement or 401K plan, paid days off and holidays, tuition support, and more. 

How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

Step 1. Complete a Nursing Program

You must graduate from an accredited nursing program to become a psychiatric nurse. You may attend either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), or diploma program to satisfy this requirement. 

Many nursing programs offer psych clinical rotations, allowing you to gain insight into the field. You may also volunteer at an agency that serves those with mental health issues to learn more about working with this population.

Step 2. Earn your RN License

Next, you'll take the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN). Passing this nationwide licensure exam certifies you to practice as a registered nurse.

Step 3. Earn a Psychiatric Nursing Certification

If you want to hone your skills even further, you can earn the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC) through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). 

PMH-BC certification is valid for five years and requires the following:

  • Hold a current, active RN license in a state or territory of the United States or hold a professional, legally recognized equivalent in another country.
  • Practiced the equivalent of 2 years full-time as a registered nurse.
  • Minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in psychiatric–mental health nursing within the last 3 years.
  • Completed 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric–mental health nursing within the last 3 years.

>> Explore Psychiatric Nursing Certification Review Materials* 

Psych RN Career Advancement Options

You can expand your scope of practice and earning potential as an advanced practice psychiatric nurse. As a psych APRN, you can hold one of two titles:

  1. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP)
  2. Psychiatric mental health clinical nurse specialist (PMHCNS)

>> Related: CNS vs NP: What's the Difference?

To become a psych APRN, you should earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. For your convenience, the American Psychiatric Nurses Association lists accredited programs, searchable by state.

Psychiatric NPs and CNSs can also earn ANCC certifications, which may be required to practice depending on where you live. Review your state’s specific requirements via the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

PMHNP Specialization for Practicing NPs

If you're already an NP but want to specialize in psychiatric mental health, you'll still need to pursue additional education and certification. However, you won't need to attend another MSN program. Instead, you'll attend a PMHNP certification program.

PMHNP post-graduate certificates allow nurse practitioners in other specialties to transition to mental health. The shortest online PMHNP certificate programs are just 12 months, allowing you to change your career trajectory swiftly.

Top Psychiatric Nurse Programs

There are numerous programs that prepare students to become psychiatric nurses, and our panel of nurses ranked them based on factors mentioned in the methodology. Because individual nursing pathways and careers take various forms, the top 10 psychiatric nurse programs are ranked in no particular order. 

Located in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania's psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner program takes just 14 months of full-time study to complete, and part-time students two to five years.

The MSN curriculum begins with biopsychosocial assessments and teaches students to diagnose and medicate different ailments. Penn also sets up three semesters of clinical practice that expose nurses to different types of psychiatric populations. PMHNP students can also choose a minor in adult oncology, global health, health informatics, nursing administration, palliative care, or women's health studies.

Rush University offers all the coursework for its psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner DNP online. Despite the distance format, the program still meets PMHNP licensure education requirements. Of course, students still attend clinical components in person in their local area. 

Keep in mind that Rush University only offers this program in a part-time capacity, with case-by-case exceptions. This format makes it ideal for students who want to keep working as they advance their education.

The University of Washington offers a post-graduate certificate and a BSN-DNP psychiatric NP program. The second, and more popular of the two, takes three years to complete. UW recommends that nurses earn at least one year of psychiatric and mental health RN experience before applying.

Applicants must also have a valid Washington RN license. Since Washington became a member of the eNLC in July 2023, this requirement is easier to satisfy for Evergreen State transplants.

The University of California San Francisco has one of the best nursing education systems nationwide. Aside from the on-campus facilities, psychiatric mental health students also complete clinical rotations at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

While most students will take the BSN-DNP route, UCSF does offer a one-year post-master's PMHNP certificate for current APRNs.

Yale is arguably the best Ivy League school for nurses, and the psychiatric mental health MSN ranks as one of the university's best nursing degrees. The degree splits its requirements into academic and clinical experience, and students spend most of their two years in the program completing both.

Yale also offers a unique graduate entry, specialty nursing program for students who don't yet have their RN license. Students in the program regularly excel on certification and licensure exams, with all students who took the exam from 2016 to 2018 passing their exams.

The University of North Carolina offers a 2-year psychiatric nurse practitioner MSN. Throughout their education, UNC students prepare to treat mental health patients across the lifespan. The curriculum focuses on psychopharmacology, diagnostic reasoning, and psychotherapeutic approaches for individuals, groups, and families.

The program's hybrid format allows students to enjoy a flexible learning environment. Additionally, they may attend clinical rotations in their local area, making it easy for out-of-state students to complete the program.

Another excellent university located in North Carolina, Duke University's MSN in psychiatric mental health is among the best in the nation. The 49-credit degree also includes over 600 hours of clinical experience, and students learn from some of the best nurse educators there are.

The program prepares nurses to work in rural and urban areas and with all types of populations. Duke also has a post-graduate psychiatric mental health certificate for current APRNs.

The Baltimore-based University of Maryland has a DNP in psychiatric mental health that takes 3-5 years to complete, depending on whether students study part-time or full-time. Regardless of which option nurses choose, the program uses a blended format, mixing in-person and online instruction.

Additionally, the university charges a per-credit tuition rate, so part-time students don't pay more than full-time students. Nurses complete clinicals at sites throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Best for nurses looking to quickly become psychiatric NPs, Vanderbilt University's MSN in psychiatric mental health takes as little as one year to complete. Nurses can quickly finish the program by using intensive online courses, though they must complete clinical rotations in person.

The program boasts a low student-to-faculty ratio, and graduates perform very well on certification exams. The cost may seem steep, but finishing the program in one year comes out to about the same total cost as, or even lower than, most two- or three-year degrees. 

A great choice for nurses who want to live in one of the major global metropolitan areas, NYU allows PMHNP students to learn at top-ranked facilities in the Big Apple. The degree focuses on the assessment and treatment of clients from all populations. Nurses in the program also get paired with mentors at practicum sites and can choose to specialize in addictions, eating disorders, or trauma-focused care. Graduates become certified to work in New York and often find high-paying positions. 


This list is based on a number of factors, including:

  • Reputation
  • Tuition
  • Acceptance rate, when available
  • Only ACEN or CCNE-accredited schools are eligible

Psychiatric nurses can earn either a master's or doctoral degree, so this list takes into account both degree options. 

Nurse Panel

Our selection panel is made up of 3 Registered Nurses with years of experience and multiple degrees:

  • Tracy Everhart, MSN, RN, CNS
  • Tyler Faust, MSN, RN
  • Kathleen Gaines, MSN, BSN, RN, BA, CBC

What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Do?

Psychiatric nurses' scope of practice includes working with clinicians, social workers, and other professionals to create and execute mental health care plans. Working with patients across the lifespan, PMHNs aid in treating a range of mental health problems through education and medical interventions. For example, they may teach coping skills, lead group therapy, and give medication as part of a treatment plan.

Psych Nurse Duties

  • 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
  • Assess and document mental health conditions
  • Assist mental health clinicians in designing and carrying out treatment plans
  • Recommend diagnostic tests as a member of a mental health care team
  • Provide psychotherapy
  • Make referrals as appropriate

>> Related: What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Do?

Psych Nurse Skills

To succeed as a psychiatric nurse, you should foster the following skills:

  • Attention to detail
  • Conscientiousness
  • Ability to juggle priorities and tasks
  • Emotional management
  • Ability to work in stressful situations (e.g. escalating patients)
  • Eagerness to learn
  • Self-care and work-life balance
  • Flexibility

Additionally, you must be open to patients from many cultural backgrounds, income levels, and value systems. Adapting your approach based on the patient's needs and background will help you be the best PMHN possible.

Where Do Psychiatric Nurses Work?

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

  • Assisted living facilities
  • Behavioral care companies
  • Community mental health centers
  • Hospitals, medical centers, and VA hospitals
  • Long-term care centers
  • Military clinics or hospitals
  • Primary care offices
  • Private practices
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Specialty psychiatric or substance abuse hospitals
  • State and federal facilities (e.g. prisons and other agencies, including the court system)
  • Universities and colleges

>> Show Me Online Psychiatric Nursing Programs

Psychiatric Nurse Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow 6 percent from 2022 to 2032. 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. The National Institute of Mental Health states that nearly one out of every five adults, or 51.5 million in the U.S., deals with some sort of mental illness as of 2019.

Given the demand for psychiatric nursing at all levels and the shortage of qualified psych nurses, demand for this specialty will likely continue growing in the coming years.

Infographic showing the number of adults who could use a psychiatric nurse


What 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.

Where 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. 

Where 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.

Find Nursing Programs

*Indicates an affiliate link. At no additional cost to you, may earn a commission if you click through and use this service.

RN $70,000 - $90,000 Associate Bachelors Psychiatric Non-Bedside
Terri Heimann Oppenheimer
Terri Heimann Oppenheimer Contributor

Terri Heimann Oppenheimer is a freelance writer and editor who is driven by details. She loves to dive into research, ensuring that the information she provides educates, engages and illuminates. Before starting her own business she spent years working in advertising and raising three kids. Today she lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where her she and her husband enjoy travel, the Jersey Shore, and spoiling their grandchildren.

Read More From Terri
Go to the top of page