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How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at CTU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

To become a Psychiatric Nurse, either an associate's degree in nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is required. It's also required to become licensed. This can be done by passing the NCLEX-RN exam.

Once the decision has been made to pursue a career in nursing, the next step for consideration is choosing a specialization. For those interested in the complexities of the human mind, psychiatric mental-health nursing may be the right fit. Part biological and part psychological-based,1 the work that a nurse experiences in the field of psychiatric-mental health may be both challenging and rewarding.

Skills and Characteristics

Psychiatric nurses may want to have or develop particular skill sets such as the following:1

  • Interpersonal Communication and Collaboration – Psychiatric nurses should have good one-on-one people skills since they help administer biopsychosocial assessments, communicate with other colleagues in disciplines related to mental health, and work to educate clients and families on therapies and medications.
  • Problem-Solving – In mental health medicine, psychiatric nurses help assess patients by using the psychiatric diagnostic classification systems, observing and examining patient behaviors to help assess patients. Also, psychiatric nurses must recognize and manage available resources for patients and their families, coordinating care based on a patient’s diagnosis and treatment plan.
  • Attention to Detail – In addition to problem-solving, it is important that psychiatric nurses demonstrate care and meticulousness since their duties can include educating patients about psychopharmacologic drugs, administering such drugs, and monitoring patients taking psychopharmacologic drugs as well.1

Required Education

Psychiatric nursing is comprised of two levels of expertise: basic and advanced. To fulfill a basic psychiatric nursing role, a person first needs to become a registered nurse (RN) by earning a diploma, associate degree or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited nursing program. The potential nurse must also go through a period of supervised clinical experience. Then, the nursing candidate is required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and become certified in his or her state of residence.2

To work in an advanced role in psychiatric mental health nursing, RNs must seek additional education and obtain a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or doctoral degree. These advanced practice nurses generally become Psychiatric Mental-Health Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs) or Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners (PNPs).1

Certifications and Licenses

To become an RN, all nursing school graduates must apply for a license with the state board of nursing where they wish to practice. After submitting their application, the state board will determine their eligibility to take the NCLEX,2 which is administered by a third-party company and aims to determine if students have acquired sufficient knowledge to practice nursing.3 Once approved to take the test, an RN candidate must register for the exam and pay the required exam fee of $200.4

Once certified and actively practicing, a nurse can pursue a psychiatric-mental health certification. Certification is available through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). The criteria for psychiatric nurse certification eligibility includes:5

  • Two years’ experience as a full-time registered nurse
  • 2,000 hours or more in clinical practice within the field of mental health-psychiatric nursing within the last three years
  • Completion of 30 hours of continuing education in mental health-psychiatric nursing within the last three years5

Receiving this certification grants a nurse the Registered Nurse-Board Certified (RN-BC) designation, and the credential is valid for five years.5 Other related certifications from the ANCC include Psychiatric Mental Health NP, Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health CNS, and Child/Adolescence Psychiatric Mental Health CNS.6 Each of these certifications may have different requirements and eligibility.

Though not mandatory, some nurses may choose a sub-specialty which allows them to work with and treat a certain demographic of patients, such as the elderly or children. A sub-specialty can be obtained to treat patients with specific disorders, substance abuse matters, or for use in forensics. These sub-specialty certifications are also possible through the ANCC.1

Job Market

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for registered nurses and nurse practitioners is expected to grow. Through 2024, RN jobs are projected to expand by 16%, and nurse practitioner jobs are anticipated to increase by 31%. Both outlooks detail a faster than average job growth compared to other occupations.7, 8

What to Expect on a Day-to-Day Basis

Psychiatric nurses work in a variety of inpatient and outpatient facilities, such as hospitals, community-based or home care programs, and local, state and federal mental health agencies. They can also be employed by a college of nursing, private practice, military unit, primary care office, prison, home health agency, behavioral care or health maintenance organization (HMO).1

On a day-to-day basis, RNs with a basic level of psychiatric nursing experience may work with individuals, families, groups and communities to assess mental health needs and develop diagnoses, as well as plan, implement and evaluate nursing care. These nurses may also assist in interventions that promote and foster health, assess dysfunction, aid clients in regaining and improving coping skills, and help prevent further disability.1

Advanced psychiatric-mental health nurses can expect to assess, diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders and potential mental health problems. They may provide an array of mental health services to patients, families and groups. These psychiatric nurses might also function as psychotherapists and, in some states, even prescribe medications. Some psychiatric CNSs can act as advisors or nursing liaisons, consulting with medical staff or delivering mental health services to physically ill patients.1

Though this line of work can be exceedingly rewarding, it may also be challenging. So, pursuing a career in psychiatric-mental health nursing ought to be based on a true passion for helping those in need.

Pursue Your RN-to-BSN with CTU

Colorado Technical University (CTU) offers an RN-to-BSN program designed to help students with prior foundational nursing knowledge pursue their bachelor’s degree. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program at Colorado Technical University is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education ( Learn more about CTU’s BSN degree program.

1. "Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse." Retrieved from: (Visited 8/18/17).
2. "How to Become a Registered Nurse." Retrieved from: (Visited 8/18/17).
3. “Before the Exam.” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/18/17).
4. "Fees & Payment." Retrieved from: (Visited 8/18/17).
5. “Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing.” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/18/17).
6. “ANCC Certification Center.” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/18/17).
7. “Registered Nurses: Summary.” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/18/17).
8. “Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners: Summary.” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/18/17).

For important information about the educational debt, earnings, and completion rates of students who attended this program, go to CTU cannot guarantee employment or salary. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. Financial aid is available for those who qualify.
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