How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse

Get a psychiatric nursing career overview with education, salary and career outlook information.

The Basics

What you'll do: Work with individuals and families who have psychiatric problems and disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis or dementia. In this role you'll perform the following tasks:

  • Assess mental health needs
  • Develop nursing care plans
  • Help patients regain or improve their coping abilities
  • Manage the therapeutic environment
  • Assist patients with self-care activities
  • Administer and monitor treatment regimens
  • Crisis intervention and counseling

Where you'll work: Hospitals, outpatient facilities, health departments, mental health agencies and long-term care centers

Degree you'll need: Bachelor's preferred and must be an RN

Median annual salary: $67,977*

Education and Certification

psychiatric nurse with elderly patient

Psychiatric nurses must be registered nurses (RNs). Although 4-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees (BSNs) are preferred, you may choose to begin your career with a 2-year associate's degree or a 2- to 3-year diploma through a hospital-based training program.

You will also need specific additional training in psychological therapies, building a therapeutic alliance, dealing with challenging behavior and the administration of psychiatric medication. This may be achieved through elective classes, continuing education and/or clinical study. After gaining enough knowledge and on-the-job experience, you can take an exam to become certified in psychiatric and mental health nursing.

To become a psychiatric nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist, you will need additional education at the graduate level, usually two-year Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. You will then need to complete a period of supervised clinical practice before you are eligible for certification as a specialist in adult or child and adolescent psychiatric-mental health nursing.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who earn master's degrees in psychiatric-mental health nursing. In addition to the functions performed by RN psychiatric nurses, APRNs also assess, diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders and potential mental health problems. They are qualified to practice independently. They provide a full range of primary mental health services and in some states are able to prescribe medications.

Certification for psychiatric nurses and psychiatric nurse practitioners is available from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Certified nurses earn significantly more than those without such credentials. Certification is required in many states and recommended in the others.

Career Outlook

As with all nursing careers, the demand for psychiatric nurses is expected to increase significantly over the next ten years. In general, the more training, certifications and experience a nurse has, the more demand there will be for his or her skill set.

Since the health care industry is currently booming, there are many financial and educational incentives available to home health nurses. One of these is the nursing loan forgiveness program, which helps students pay back their nursing college loans as they work in a nursing setting. Learn more about this type of nursing financial aid that allows you to gain valuable home health nursing experience while getting reimbursed for your nursing school education.

Sources: Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow; American Psychiatric Nurses Association; Nursing Spectrum; Salary.com, January 2014; Staff Nurse - RN - Psychiatric Unit.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.