How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Learn how to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in the psychiatric nursing field.

Do I Want to Be a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners, or mental health nurse practitioners, are advanced practice nurses who serve as primary care mental health providers. They diagnose and treat patients with mental illnesses and can also serve as educators or counselors for medical patients and their families. They may collaborate with a doctor or psychiatrist, but they generally don't have to work under supervision.

Registered nurses, including psychiatric nurse practitioners, usually work full-time, though their schedules may vary widely. Nurses can be scheduled for 8- to 12-hour shifts and work evenings, nights, and/or weekends. Psychiatric nurse practitioners work in medical care settings, including hospitals, clinics, and mental health in-patient centers. As nurses, they may be exposed to patients with infectious diseases and, as psychiatric caregivers, they are at risk for injury when treating patients who may become violent or emotionally agitated.

Job Requirements

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are registered nurses (RNs) who have completed a psychiatric nurse practitioner graduate degree program and obtained certification as an adult psychiatric nurse practitioner or a family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner. The following table describes the general requirements to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree or post-graduate certificate****
Degree Field(s) Bachelor's degree in nursing, master's degree as a psychiatric nurse practitioner****
Licensure All states license registered nurses (RNs) and nurse practitioners**
Certification American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) certifies psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners****
Experience Required for licensure*
Key Skills Social awareness and perceptiveness, problem-solving abilities, ability to monitor and assess patients, sensitivity, reasoning and critical thinking skills, compassion*****
Computer Skills Basic word processing, data entry and medical software*****
Technical Skills Ability to use medical equipment, such as EKG machines, surgical lasers, suction kits, defibrillators and vision charts*****
Additional Requirement Must hold a valid RN license

Sources: *Graduate degree programs, **State nursing boards, ***Psychiatric nurse practitioner degree programs, ****American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), *****O*NET OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing

Aspiring psychiatric nurse practitioners must meet the preliminary education and training requirements by becoming an RN. This is generally done by obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BSN). Courses in nursing degree programs generally include pharmacology and pathophysiology basics, anatomy and physiology, patient health assessment and nursing throughout all life stages. Student nurses also perform supervised clinical rotations as part of their graduation requirements.

Success Tip:

  • Complete electives in psychology and psychiatric medicine. Student nurses who plan to pursue psychiatric nursing should choose electives that feature this area of practice.

Step 2: Obtain State Licensure as a Registered Nurse

All states require nurses to be licensed before practicing. Most states require candidates to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. There may also be additional state nursing board licensure requirements. Nurses who are licensed in one state may apply for license by endorsement in another state.

Step 3: Gain Experience

Most psychiatric nurse practitioner graduate degree programs require applicants to have one to two years of clinical psychiatric nursing experience as an RN before considering them for enrollment. Nurses can gain experience through a wide variety of specialties, such as geriatrics, inpatient mental health facilities or in/outpatient practice with families, adults or children.

Success Tip:

  • Verify enrollment prerequisites. Candidates should check with the school they plan to attend to the prerequisites for enrollment. This enables them to select work opportunities that meet the admissions criteria for a particular university.

Step 4: Earn a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Master's Degree

Master's degree programs for psychiatric nurse practitioners generally take one-and-a-half to three years to complete, depending on the school. Students develop psychotherapy skills and learn therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy and other therapeutic modalities. Students also learn about all aspects of the brain as it affects mental health, as well as pharmacotherapeutics, biopsychosocial assessment and diagnostic techniques. It's important to enroll in an accredited program, because this ensures that you can meet the educational portion of licensure and certification requirements.

Step 5: Become Certified as a Nurse Practitioner

After attaining a graduate degree, psychiatric nurse practitioners must earn certification by passing an exam administered by ANCC. The exam tests students' knowledge of practitioner and patient relationships, patient assessment, disease prevention and clinical management. Nurse practitioners who are interested in psychiatry can choose to be ANCC-certified in either adult or family psychiatric and mental health. Once the candidate passes the exam, the nurse practitioner will receive his or her Family Psychiatric Mental-Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified or Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified designation (PMHNP-BC).

Success Tips:

  • Maintain certification. To maintain PMHNP-BC certification, every five years a psychiatric nurse practitioner must fulfill a minimum of 75 continuing education hours from an accredited provider and perform other specified demonstrations of competence and expertise that may include publication, research or presentations to academic courses. The nurse practitioner is also required to complete 1000 practice hours and to have maintained his or her RN license in good standing. Recertification requirements for RN licenses vary from state to state.

Step 6: Obtain a State Nurse Practitioner License

Nurse practitioners must be licensed by the state nursing board beyond their RN licenses. General requirements include having a valid RN license, graduating from an approved nurse practitioner master's degree program and holding valid certification. Additional licensure requirements and renewal requirements vary by state.

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