Psychiatric Nurse

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five US adults suffers from some form of mental illness. The degree of illness can vary from mild to moderate to severe, with most people being in the mild to moderate range. However, those who suffer from severe mental illness may need specialized care in a mental health care treatment facility.

Psychiatric nurses are registered nurses who have the skills, training, and education to help individuals, groups, and families who need mental health care treatment. Nurses in this specialization can help develop and implement plans that will have clients on the path towards a more grounded and centered mental state. This job requires a high degree of empathy and understanding, strong boundaries, and the ability to enforce rules.

To become a psychiatric nurse, one must first earn a general nursing degree. This can be either an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), although a BSN offers more employment opportunities and is preferred by employers. 

Upon completing a nursing program, aspiring psychiatric nurses can find entry-level work in the field or can complete a residency program to gain more skills. Psychiatric nurses can go on to complete a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) to become psychiatric nurse practitioners, which is a more independent role where they can diagnose and treat patients. 

Licensure as a registered nurse is required for psychiatric nurses, but certification is optional. The most common certification is the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC) from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Psychiatric nurses work anywhere patients receive mental healthcare, including hospitals, group homes, inpatient centers, and outpatient treatment facilities. Demand for nurses is currently high, with an expected 9 percent growth in jobs in this field nationally between 2020 and 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021). 

Keep reading to learn more about this specialization in nursing, including education programs, salary ranges, and job duties.

Psychiatric Nurse Specializations & Degree Types

Nurses who wish to work in psychiatry must complete an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN). These general nursing education programs can prepare nurses for entry-level work in this field. Nurses who wish to specialize further can complete a master’s of science in nursing in order to become psychiatric nurse practitioners.

Admissions Requirements for Psychiatric Nurse Programs

Admissions to nursing programs are relatively competitive. Most programs require that candidates complete prerequisite coursework in biology, anatomy, math, and chemistry and have a minimum GPA from that coursework. 

Depending on the program, other admission requirements can include a background check, drudge screening, and even already having completed a degree such as an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Psychiatric Nurse Program Accreditation

Accreditation is a voluntary step universities and colleges undergo to verify that their program has met a high-quality standard in faculty, facilities, curriculum, and student outcomes. 

It is essential that nursing students verify that their desired program has been accredited by the  Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), the two accreditation boards for nursing programs. Most states require that candidates for a registered nursing license have completed an accredited program, as this guarantees a minimum quality of education.

On-Campus Psychiatric Nurse Degree Programs

Oregon Health and Science University – School of Nursing

Oregon Health and Science University School of Nursing offers a three-year bachelor’s in nursing degree. Students can complete this degree at one of five campuses across the state of Oregon. This unique format allows for improved utilization of clinical facilities and faculty expertise across the state. This program is ranked number seven in the nation by US News & World Report. 

To be eligible for admission, students must have completed a year of college, or 30 semester-credits (45 quarter-credits). These credits must include prerequisite coursework in anatomy and physiology, microbiology, human development, algebra, and nutrition. Applicants must have at least a 3.0 GPA and complete an in-person interview to assess their suitability for the program. 

  • Location: Portland, Ashland, Monmouth, Klamath Falls, and La Grande, OR
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $751 per credit

Duke University – School of Nursing

Students who have already completed a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing can complete the 16-month accelerated bachelor’s of science in nursing at Duke University’s School of Nursing. This is a full-time campus-based program that is extremely rigorous. Students should not plan on working while completing this program. This program focuses on health, wellness, disease prevention, leadership, and evidence-based practices. 

In total, students will complete 58 credit hours to earn this degree and nearly 800 hours of clinical experience. All students will gain hands-on skills in the Center for Nursing Discovery, which is the only accredited healthcare simulation facility in North Carolina. Students can also earn up to nine credits towards a master of science in nursing program, should they so choose. 

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Duration: 16 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $24,147 per semester

Laredo College

The associate’s degree in nursing at Laredo College is one of the top programs in the country. Students can choose to complete a two-year program if they have no prior experience in this field, or they can complete the transition program if they are already Licensed Vocational Nurses. 

Both programs will require students to complete general education classes in composition, psychology, and math, in addition to nursing, pharmacology, anatomy, and mental health courses. 

Admissions are competitive, and students must complete prerequisite coursework before applying. All candidates must have at least a 2.5 GPA to be considered for admission, up-to-date immunizations, and a clean background check. Applicants must also take a standardized pre-admission nursing entrance exam (ATI TEAS) to determine proficiency in English, reading, math, and science. Tests taken for other nursing programs will not be accepted. 

  • Location: Laredo, TX
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN))
  • Tuition: $370 per credit

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (Residency)

To help recently graduated nurses gain experience and specialized training in psychiatry, Vanderbilt University Medical Center offers a one-year paid nurse residency program in behavioral health. 

This program consists of full-time work with classes and seminars included. Candidates will be interviewed two to three times to determine if they are a good fit. Applicants must have less than six months of nursing experience to apply for this program.  While this program is only a year long, there is a strong encouragement for nurses to commit to an additional year of working at Vanderbilt post-residency. 

To be eligible to apply for this program, candidates must complete nursing school and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. There are two start dates each year: July and October. 

  • Location: Nashville, TN
  • Duration: One year 
  • Accreditation: American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Commission on Accreditation in Practice Transition Programs
  • Tuition: None; all residents receive a salary and benefits

Cone Health (Residency)

Cone Health offers several nurse residency programs for nurses with less than one year of experience, including one in behavioral health. Orientation takes place during the first 14 weeks of this program, followed by ongoing professional development classes. All participating will gain experience in critical incident response and clinical care of children, adolescents, and adults in the Behavioral Health Hospital and Behavioral Medicine Unit at Alamance Regional Medical Center. 

This is a paid position that includes benefits and paid time off.  A bachelor’s in nursing is required to be considered for this program.

  • Location: Greensboro, NC
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: None; all residents receive a salary and benefits

Online or Hybrid Psychiatric Nurse Education Programs

Husson University

Registered nurses who wish to provide more independent psychiatric care for patients can complete an online master’s of science in nursing at Husson University to become psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs). While this advanced degree isn’t necessary to be a psychiatric nurse, being a nurse practitioner is an advanced role that will allow nurses to diagnose and treat patients. 

In this program, nurses will learn how to assess mental health concerns and determine any necessary treatments or pharmaceuticals. Graduates of this program have a 95 percent passage rate on the national certification exam for psychiatric nurse practitioner. 

  • Location: Bangor, ME
  • Duration: 24 to 30 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $682 per credit 

Western Governors University

Western Governors University offers a pre-licensure hybrid bachelor’s of science in nursing degree. Students must attend in-person labs and clinicals and be based in  Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, or Utah. The didactic coursework is all offered online so students can complete their studies when it is convenient for them. 

This program has an innovative competency-based model, where students are measured on their skills rather than time in the program or test scores. Tuition is based on a six-month time period, and students can complete as many classes as they can during that period for one low price. Most students complete this degree in two-and-a-half years with an average of 30 hours per week of studies, assessments, labs, and clinical rotations. 

  • Location: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, or Utah
  • Duration: 2.5 years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $5,930 per six months  

American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA)

The APNA offers online continuing education classes for psychiatric nurses. These classes vary in length and can help nurses gain new skills and stay up to date with the latest best practices. 

These hours can be used to meet the eligibility for the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC) exam, or they can be used to help maintain certification or licensure. While most of the courses are in psychiatric care, some of them may fall under pharmacology or other specialties. While some courses have a cost associated with them, many courses are also available for free. 

  • Location: Falls Church, VA
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Commission on Accreditation
  • Tuition: Varies 

Rasmussen University Nursing School

Students who live near one of the 19 Rasmussen University campuses in five states can complete a hybrid associate’s degree in nursing in as little as 18 months. If a student is already a licensed professional nurse, then the program can be completed in as little as 12 months. 

Most of the didactic coursework in this program can be completed online with on-campus simulation labs and in-person clinical experiences. Skills students will learn include patient care, clinical decision-making, professional confidence, and critical thinking. In total, students must complete 102 credit hours over 25 courses to earn this degree.  

  • Location: 19 campuses in five states
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing
  • Tuition: $409 per credit 

American Nurses Association (ANA)

To sit for the ANA’s Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC) exam, candidates must have 2,000 hours of work experience and 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric–mental health nursing. 

One place where nurses can complete some continuing education is through the ANA’s online learning portal. In fact, the PMH-BC online exam review course, which can help prepare nurses for this exam, provides 16.4 contact-hours. In the exam review course, nurses will gain study tips, understand the exam content, and be better prepared for the exam. 

  • Location: Silver Spring, MA
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Tuition: Varies per course

How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychiatric Nurse?

It takes anywhere from 18 months to four years to become a psychiatric nurse. The variation in timelines is due to the type of program completed. Bachelor’s programs take longer than an associate’s degree. Once nursing school is complete, nurses can go directly into psychiatry. However, it takes at least 2,000 hours of work experience in this field to achieve a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC).

How To Become a Psychiatric Nurse  – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

Completing high school or earning a GED is required to pursue a career in nursing, as it is required for most nursing programs. Aspiring psychiatric nurses should focus on science and math classes to prepare them for additional studies. 

Step 2: Complete a Nursing Program (18 Months to Four Years)

Psychiatric nurses must complete a nursing program. These can be an associate’s degree in nursing or a bachelor’s of science in nursing. While it is possible to work in this field with an associate’s, a bachelor’s is highly recommended and preferred by most employers.  

Step 3: Pass NCLEX-RN (Timelines Vary)

After completing a nursing program, nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination Registered Nurse exam to obtain licensure. Passing this exam demonstrates a high level of knowledge and skill in nursing. 

Step 4: Apply for State Licensure (Timelines Varies)

In order to care for patients, psychiatric nurses need to be licensed by their state’s nursing board. Requirements can vary by state, but most include passing the NCLEX-RN exam, completing a nursing program, and passing a background check, 

Step 5: Complete Additional Education or Gain Work Experience (Timelines Vary)

Nurses can enter the field of psychiatry directly after obtaining licensure. However, additional education and work experience can be beneficial when applying for more lucrative positions or seeking advancement. Also, work experience is required to obtain certification.  

Step 6: Earn Certification as a Psychiatric Nurse (Timelines Vary)

Once a psychiatric nurse has completed 2,000 hours of work experience in this field, they can be eligible to sit for the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC). More information on this certification can be found below.

What Do Psychiatric Nurses Do?

Psychiatric nurses work anywhere mental health services are provided. This can include hospitals, inpatient centers, outpatient treatment facilities, group homes, and rehabilitation agencies. Employers can include government agencies as well as private or non-profit companies. 

Job duties will vary based on the place of employment, and the population served. Typical responsibilities will include:

  • Assessing patients’ conditions
  • Taking vital signs and monitoring patients
  • Assisting physicians with examinations or treatments
  • Administering medications per physician orders
  • Transcribing physician notes and reviewing charts
  • Maintaining meticulous records
  • Ensuring there are no harmful or triggering things in a patient’s environment
  • Educating families and patients about their conditions
  • Restraining or consoling patients in crisis

Psychiatric Nurse Certifications & Licensure

All psychiatric nurses must be licensed registered nurses in the state where they practice. Licenses are issued by each state’s nursing board. Requirements will vary by state, but most include:

  • Passing the NCLEX-RN exam
  • Completing a nursing program
  • Passing a background check
  • Having a clear drug screening

Certification is not required for psychiatric nurses. However, this voluntary step demonstrates to employers that a candidate has proficiency in this field, as well as verified work experience and education. The primary certification nurses in this field earn is the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC) from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. To be eligible, nurses must have:

  • Two years of work experience as a nurse
  • A current unencumbered registered nursing license
  • 2,000 document hours of working in psychiatric nursing in the past three years
  • 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric nursing in the past three years

How Much Do Psychiatric Nurses Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2021) estimates that the 3,047,530 nurses in the US earn $82,750 per year on average. Presently, the BLS doesn’t monitor salaries for specialties. The percentiles for all RN wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $59,450
  • 25th percentile: $61,790
  • 50th  percentile (median): $77,600
  • 75th percentile: $97,580
  • 90th percentile: $120,250

Psychiatric Nurse Career Alternatives

Here are some alternatives to a career as a psychiatric nurse: 

Become an Oncology Nurse

Oncology nurses have additional training and education to work with cancer patients. They may work in physician offices, treatment centers, or hospitals, providing care at all stages of cancer treatment, from the initial diagnosis to end-of-life care. 

  • Typical Education: Associate’s or bachelor’s
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC)

Become a Nurse Educator

Nurses who teach other nurses are called nurse educators. Not only do nurse educators have a high level of competency in patient care, but they also have the passion and skills to share that with aspiring nurses. Nurse educators can work in nursing education programs where they teach classes and labs, or they can work in clinics and hospitals where they supervise hands-on learning. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National League for Nursing.

Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nurses who complete a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) can become nurse practitioners. Nurse practitioners can work independently in many states and can specialize in various fields or populations such as oncology, pediatrics, or emergency medicine. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) and American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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