How to Become a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner: The 6 Steps You Can't ignore
Often—maybe too often—we tend to think of healthcare practitioners as the people who deal solely with physical ailments. They’re bandaging wounds, treating cancers, setting broken bones and getting patients back on track after stomach bugs. But of course, patient health is about much more than just how they’re feeling physically.
Mental health issues can be just as debilitating and detrimental to a patient’s overall quality of life as physical ailments, and despite historical stigma associated with the topic, are incredibly common. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20.6% of U.S. adults (51.5 million people) experienced mental illness in 2019.1 While not every person within that group is able—or willing—to seek treatment, there’s still a significant need for trained mental health professionals to provide quality care. Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are one group that can help answer that call—and you could be one of them.
So what does becoming a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner entail? In this article, we’ll lay out the steps needed to get started.
What are psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners and what do they do?
Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners, sometimes called psychiatric nurse practitioners, are a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) that provide advanced care to patients with mental illnesses and psychiatric disorders. In this role, they are responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders or substance abuse problems. This includes conducting patient assessments, guiding therapy sessions and prescribing medication when appropriate.
While that may sound straightforward when summarized, this is a challenging role that requires extensive training and expertise to be effective. Let’s take a closer look at the steps aspiring PMHNPs will need to take in order to practice.
How to become a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner
The requirements for becoming a PMHNP are substantial and can be a little complicated if you’re unfamiliar. To help with that, let’s break it down step-by-step.
1. Become a registered nurse
To one day work as a PMHNP, you’ll first need to become a registered nurse (RN). That means getting into nursing school and completing an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program. Upon completion, you’ll need to meet all other licensure requirements in your state, including passing the NCLEX-RN® examination. This is a key standardized test designed to gauge your overall competence and ability to practice safely as a registered nurse.
It should be noted that while there are multiple educational paths to becoming an RN, if your ultimate goal is to become a PMHNP, you’ll want to complete a bachelor’s degree program. This degree (along with an active nursing license) is a key condition of enrolling in most nurse practitioner graduate degree programs.
Want to learn more about your options for becoming an RN? Our article “How to Become an RN Fast: 3 Potential Paths to Pursue” can help.
2. Build nursing experience
While this step is not an absolute necessity for entrance into a PMHNP program, it may be beneficial in practice to first build some experience in a registered nursing role.
“Research has shown that RN-level experience before moving into a graduate PMHNP program provides a richer knowledge and experience base from which to draw,” says Dr. Josh Hamilton, Rasmussen University School of Nursing dean and graduate program director. “This experience builds a nurse’s knowledge and skills with a diverse patient population and deepens their clinical intuition for the ‘gray areas’ which predominate within this complex patient population.”
If at all possible, would-be PHMNPs should try to focus their RN experiences on areas directly related to mental health. Dr. Hamilton suggests gaining experience and exposure to inpatient and outpatient settings, as well as different care models. He also recommends attempting to observe and collaborate with colleagues who provide counseling, psychotherapy and supportive interventions, as well as established PMHNPs who work within the advanced practice scope.
This will help you get a better feel for what working in the mental health field may entail and can help you determine if attending a PMHNP program is the right move for you.
Additionally, Dr. Hamilton notes that many RNs will pursue certifications at this stage, including the generalist Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (RN/PMH-BC) offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)®.
3. Identify and apply to a PMHNP program
No matter the path you choose after earning RN licensure, you’ll need to eventually complete a graduate degree program to become a PMHNP. This is another substantial step worth careful consideration. Prospective PMHNPs will want to consider several factors, including:
- Program cost
- Admissions requirements
- Time commitment and schedule
- Clinical practicum opportunities
Finding the right fit may take a little time, so do your research into PMHNP program options. During this stage, you should start to develop a clearer picture of the time commitment and what’s expected of you to succeed.
4. Complete your PMHNP coursework
Once you’ve settled into a PMHNP program, it’s time to dive into your coursework. At Rasmussen University, PMHNP students can expect a rigorous slate of courses designed to develop their advanced practice nursing skills. This includes courses like:
- Foundations of PMHNP Practice
- Psychopathology and Neurobiology of Mental Health Disorders
- Psychiatric Mental Health Treatment Modalities
Additionally, PMHNP students will complete 630 clinical hours in four practicum experiences focused on the following: pediatrics and family, adults, aging adults and a specialty focus area of their choosing under the guidance of an experienced preceptor.
“The clinical practicum is students’ opportunity to see ‘where the rubber meets the road’ in psychiatric nursing,” says Dr. Hamilton. “Practicum experiences underscore for students where the evidence-base they learn actually works—and where there are vulnerabilities or failings in the science or the system in which we practice. The experience is humbling, empowering and eye-opening.”
Dr. Hamilton notes that these experiences usually leave students with a new sense of pragmatism and empathy for those who are in their care. These practicum experiences can also provide unexpected career clarity—something Dr. Hamilton experienced personally.
“When I was studying to become a PMHNP, I was firmly convinced that I only wanted to work with adult patients,” Dr. Hamilton says. “My clinical practicum with pediatric patients and their families was so unexpectedly gratifying, I ended up being one of the first PMHNPs in the U.S. to write the ‘lifespan’ certification exam, and I am still one of the only PMHNPs in my state who works with children and adolescents. It was—and is—some of the most challenging, interesting and rewarding work I do.”
5. Prepare for and obtain board certification and licensure
With coursework completed, the next essential step will be to obtain the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHNP-BC) credential through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. This requires passing a 175 question exam covering the following topic areas:
- Scientific foundation
- Advanced practice skills
- Diagnosis and treatment
- Psychotherapy and related theories
- Ethical and legal principles
With board certification complete, you’ll also need to apply for state licensure and meet all other requirements, like a criminal background check.
6. Secure employment
Last, but certainly not least, is to find employment as a PMHNP. You’ll have some options at this stage, whether that’s working at a psychiatric hospital, an assisted living facility, a mental health center or an independently owned practice.
At this step, you’ve ideally made connections—and positive impressions—on potential employers during your practicum experience. Those relationships are often an excellent starting point when beginning a job search. Additionally, professional organizations like the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, the American Counseling Association, and the American Mental Health Counselors Association have job boards that can help you focus your search.
Ready to take the next step?
If you’re starting from square one, there’s undoubtedly a substantial road ahead of you on the way to becoming PHMNP. While this might seem daunting at first, you’ve already completed the first step by learning more about what it takes. Let’s build on that. At Rasmussen University, you can find Nursing programs to fit you, no matter whether you’re fresh out of high school or a well-established RN.
If you’re ready to learn more about how the PMHNP program at Rasmussen University can help position you for a difference-making career in mental health care, visit the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program page.
1Mental Health By the Numbers, National Alliance on Mental Illness. March 2021. [accessed November 2021] https://www.nami.org/mhstats
NCLEX-RN is a registered trademark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.
American Nurses Credentialing Center is a registered trademark of the American Nurses Credentialing Center Corporation.
American Association of Nurse Practitioners is a registered trademark of American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Inc