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Behavioral Health Nurse: Job & Career Info

Explore the education and training requirements of a behavioral health nurse. Learn about work duties, necessary skills, employment outlook and salary to decide if this is the right career for you.

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Career Definition for a Behavioral Health Nurse

Behavioral health nursing involves the treatment of a variety of medical problems caused or aggravated by lifestyle or stress. Behavioral health nurses use tools like biofeedback, relaxation techniques, and behavior modification to help patients change habits, alter thought patterns, and find ways to deal with pain or stress. These nurses also have special training in psychiatric nursing practice and theories of personality development.

Education Associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing, state licensure and certification
Job Skills Coordination, physical fitness, critical thinking, compassion, emotional stability
Average Salary (2015)* $71,000 (all registered nurses)
Job Outlook (2014-2024)* 16% increase (all registered nurses)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Required Education

To become board certified as a behavioral health nurse, applicants need an associate's degree in nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Upon completion of a degree program, RNs must become licensed through their state by passing the NCLEX-RN exam. In addition, applicants should spend two years as a state-licensed RN, including 2,000 hours of clinical psychiatric experience, and must pass a certification exam in psychiatric-mental health nursing, according to the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC, www.nursecredentialing.org).

Skills Required

Behavioral health nurses must be coordinated, physically fit, able to stand and walk for extended periods and strong enough to support patients who may be disoriented or violent. Care is often 24/7, so shifts may last for 12 hours, day or night, and include weekends. Behavioral health nurses should have exceptional critical thinking skills to quickly assess changes in a patient's mental health, as well as compassion for their patients. They must be emotionally stable to cope with human suffering and patient during stressful and chaotic situations.

Career and Economic Outlook

The mean annual salary for RNs in all fields in May 2015 was $71,000, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov) stated that nurses working in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals made slightly less at $67,580. The BLS predicts the demand for all registered nurses will increase faster than average at 16% from 2014 through 2024.

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Alternative Career Options

Similar career options within this field include:

Behavioral Disorder Counselor

Those with a desire to help individuals with behavioral issues should consider a career in behavioral disorder counseling. Behavioral disorder counselors meet with clients, analyze problems and educate clients and their families about issues, goals and the process. They also create treatment plans, recommend resources that may help and assist clients in overcoming bad behaviors and addictions through counseling. A master's degree is required for professionals who offer private counseling sessions in addition to licensure through examination and the completion of a set number of clinical hours. Less education and experience might open up the door to entry-level jobs in the social service support field. Substance and behavioral disorder counselors can expect to see a huge 22% increase in job opportunities during the 2014-2024 decade, as predicted by the BLS. In 2015, the BLS also determined that substance abuse and behavioral counselors earned an average yearly income of $42,920.

Psychologist

For those who want to study the human mind and human behavior as well as offering mental health care, becoming a psychologist may be a good career option. Using scientific techniques, psychologists research behavior patterns, observe activities, interview subjects, conduct experiments and analyze results. They also diagnose mental disorders and illnesses, work with clients to help them deal with their problems and consult with other medical professionals to determine a treatment plan. A doctoral degree in psychology is usually necessary to work in the field, but some areas like school or industrial-organizational psychology may only require a master's degree. Independently practicing psychologists must also obtain a license to work in their state, generally consisting of clinical experience and passing an exam. The BLS projects the field of psychology to grow faster than average, with a 19% increase in new jobs predicted for 2014 to 2024. BLS figures from 2015 also show the average wage of counseling, clinical and school psychologists to be $76,040.

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