What Is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)?

January 31, 2024

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders are on the rise. The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent stresses—job loss, schooling disruptions, social isolation—certainly contributed to this trend, prompting a sharp increase in psychological distress worldwide. Mental health professionals worry that the effects may be felt for a generation or more.

Among the results: a spike in unmet demand for mental health therapists. Many Americans—over 150 million, according to Department of Health and Human Services data—live in mental health HPSAs (health professional shortage areas). The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that six in ten therapists lack openings for new patients. Almost three-quarters of psychologists have longer waitlists for their services than before the pandemic.

There are no easy remedies to the mental health care crisis in America, but bolstering the ranks of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) would ease the burden on psychiatrists and improve patient access. These nurse practitioners specializing in mental health offer many of the same services as psychiatrists: they can provide therapy, prescribe medications, and diagnose and treat patients. 

Becoming a PMHNP requires a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). You can earn this degree remotely from Yale School of Nursing’s online Master of Science in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, which mirrors the curriculum, faculty, and diploma offered through the program’s on-campus counterpart.

What is a psychiatric nurse practitioner?

PMHNPs are advanced practice nurses specializing in mental health care services—who often provide treatment with significant autonomy (depending on the state in which they practice). 

What do PMHNPs do?

PMHNPs perform many of the same mental health care tasks as physicians or psychiatrists, including:

  • Diagnosing mental health conditions by evaluating patients and ordering and analyzing test results as necessary.
  • Providing therapy to treat mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.
  • Prescribing medication to treat severe mental illness.
  • Educating patients and their families about mental health challenges and available treatment plans.
  • Working alongside other health care providers to deliver holistic care to patients.

In some states, PMHNPs can practice autonomously and even establish an independent clinical practice. Other jurisdictions require physician oversight, the breadth and extent of which varies by state. No matter where they practice, PMHNPs can provide excellent care for patients managing mental health conditions. Patients and the medical profession recognize their value, explaining why PMHNPs have started filling the service gap in mental health care.

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Where do PMHNPs work?

According to a 2022 American Psychiatric Nursing Association workforce report, 70% of advanced practice psychiatric and mental health nurses work in outpatient settings. Hospitals provide employment for another 16%, with the remainder working in education, correctional facilities, college and university counseling centers, and community or residential facilities.

The same survey reported that 86% of PMHNPs provided some telehealth services; on average, they treated an average of 25 patients per week online. Nearly half have completed Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) training for opioid disorders, a number that should increase as more MSN programs add MAT training to their curricula.

How much do PMHNPs make?

Like other advanced practice nurses, PMHNPs are well-compensated for their advanced training and high level of certification. According to the American Psychiatric Nursing Association, about half of all PMHNPs earn between $100,000 and $150,000 annually. About 17% earn above $150,000 per year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that full-time PMHNPs earned a median total income, including base salary, bonuses, and incentive payments, of $121,610 in 2022. By way of comparison, registered nurses (RNs) earned a median total income of $81,220, according to the BLS.

PMHNPs typically pursue mental health care specialization for reasons unrelated to compensation. Their motives include a desire to help underserved communities, an interest in greater professional autonomy, or a passion for mental health care. 

What certifications do PMHNPs need?

All PMHNPs begin their career journey by earning their registered nursing (RN) license. After acquiring RN certification from their states, they can return to school to learn advanced psychiatric nursing. They complete a PMHNP curriculum that includes coursework in pathophysiology, psychopathology, psychotherapy and psychopharmacology, all skills necessary to diagnose, provide therapy and prescribe medication for mental health patients.

After graduating from their PMHNP program, aspiring psychiatric nurse practitioners must earn the PMHNP-BC, a certification required to work in the field. The PMHNP-BC exam tests knowledge related to psychiatric nursing. Passing the exam qualifies the holder to become a licensed PMHNP in their state.

What is the future like for PMHNPs?

The future is promising for PMHNPs. The BLS expects the job market for advanced practice nurses and nurse practitioners to grow by 38% between now and 2032. That’s nearly eight times the growth rate of the job market as a whole. The American Psychiatric Nurse Association reports “rapid growth in the PMH-APRN workforce,” noting that the number of certified advanced practice psychiatric nurses nearly doubled between 2013 and 2020.

Tomorrow’s PHMNPs may well enjoy greater professional autonomy than their predecessors have. The federal government and many states loosened restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic to address the overflowing demand for care. Experts advocate for continuing to lift restrictions and granting nurse practitioners full autonomy. In late 2022, California’s nursing agency updated regulations, paving the way for almost 20,000 nurse practitioners to operate with greater autonomy.

Become a PMHNP at YSN

Psychiatric nurse practitioners provide therapy and other mental health care at a time when the need for services is straining the health care system. Demand for these essential professionals has grown over the past decade, a trend that seems likely to continue. PMHNPs earn substantial salaries reflecting their impact and advanced skill sets. 

All of which makes now an excellent time to pursue a PMHNP master’s degree. Yale School of Nursing’s online MSN PMHNP program offers the excellence and cachet of a Yale education with the flexibility of remote learning.

The program’s advanced curriculum teaches everything RNs need to excel in psychiatric nursing. Students learn from the same exceptional nursing faculty of active practitioners who teach YSN’s on-campus courses. In addition to classroom learning, YSN PMHNP students participate in real-world clinical experiences arranged by YSN, which pairs students with Yale-vetted preceptors nationwide. 

YSN trains psychiatric nurse practitioners who can think critically and independently, preparing them to work in any health care setting and deliver effective care. Join their ranks to help close the mental health care gap and impact some of the country’s most underserved populations.

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