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How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

17 Min Read Published September 29, 2023
how to become a psyschiatric nurse

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

What 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. 

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Psychiatric Nurse Salary

Psychiatric nurse salaries vary depending on your level of education, years of experience, size of employer, and where you live and work. In May 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median annual wage for registered nurses was $81,220 or $39.05 per hour. Unfortunately, the BLS does not differentiate between different types of nurses. 

The mean annual income for a nurse working in the psychiatric or substance abuse hospital setting according to was $72,538, though conditions vary by area. 

The average Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner salary is $144,761 per year, according to Indeed, making them one of the highest paying nurse careers

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. 

Show Me Psychiatric Nursing Programs

Highest Paying States for RN Salaries


*BLS 2022

It's important to 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 salaries for adventurous nurses who want flexibility in location and lifestyle. 

How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

Step 1. Complete a Nursing Program

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.

You can 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

Step 2. Earn your RN License

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

Step 3. Earn your Certification in Psychiatric Nursing

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

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

  • Hold a current, active RN license in a state or territory of the United States or hold the 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* 

Step 4. Advance Your Psychiatric Nursing Career

If you want to expand your scope of practice and earning potential, become an advanced practice psychiatric 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 information 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. 

PMHNP Specialization Options 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 long, 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 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 master's degree 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. Each week, nurses then discuss their experiences with other nurses. Nurses who want to continue working can study part-time, and students can also choose a minor in adult oncology, global health, health informatics, nursing administration, palliative care, or women's health studies. 
Instead of requiring students to come to campus, Rush University offers all the coursework for the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner DNP online. Despite completing courses from a distance, the program does meet the requirements to become a licensed psychiatric nurse practitioner. Of course, students still need to gain clinical experience in person, the only component of the degree that isn't online. Rush University only teaches 34 psychiatric nurse students at a time, so the program can be competitive.
The University of Washington has two DNP in psychiatric mental health options: a post-graduate certificate and a BSN-DNP. The second option -- and the more popular of the two -- take three years to complete, and UW recommends that applicants first get at least one year of RN experience working in psychiatric and mental health or a related field. Applicants also need an unencumbered RN license in Washington, and Washington is not currently part of the eNLC. Some courses allow for distance learning, but the DNP also includes plenty of clinical experience at sites around the Seattle area. 
The University of California - San Francisco has one of the best systems for educating nurses in the nation. 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 San Francisco Department of Public Health. Most nursing students will probably enroll in the regular MSN option, though UCSF does have a few post-master's certificates, too. Also, California residents benefit from the low in-state tuition. 
Yale University is arguably the best Ivy League school for nurses, and the MSN in psychiatric mental health 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, prespecialty in 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 2016-2018 passing their exams.
Considered one of the best public universities in the nation, the University of North Carolina has two options for its DNP in psychiatric mental health: a hybrid BSN-DNP and an online MSN-DNP for current APRNs. The BSN-DNP route offers some courses online, and students complete their clinicals at some of the best healthcare sites in the region. Full-time students usually take three years to finish the BSN-DNP, and students earn over 1,000 hours of relevant clinical experience during 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, and 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 clinical experience needs to be earned in person. Students also attend some courses on-campus to take part in simulated experiences. 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, as most two- or three-year degrees. 
A great choice for nurses that want to live in one of the major global metropolitan areas, New York University lets psychiatric mental health students learn at top-ranked facilities across New York. 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 students 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 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.

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

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

Where Do Psychiatric Nurses Work?

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

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

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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.

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

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. 

>> Related: Top 10 Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Programs

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.

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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.

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