How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

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How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

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Psychiatric nurse practitioners or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are DNP graduates who go on to specialize in the field of mental health. If you're interested in psychiatry and helping people who suffer from mental health issues, choosing this career path is the best way to pursue your passions.

As a psychiatric nurse practitioner, you can work with any demographic you want to, including kids, adults, entire families, groups, and even large communities. Psychiatric nurse practitioners who have the DNP have the opportunity to support those with a variety of different psychiatric illnesses and disorders or those who suffer from substance abuse.

If you're curious about what it takes to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, then check out this complete guide. It's got everything you need to know about getting your DNP, the skills that will benefit you in the career, how much you can make, and what is involved with the job role.

What is a psychiatric nurse practitioner?

A psychiatric nurse practitioner is a DNP graduate who has chosen psychiatry as a niche. They offer mental health care to their patients who suffer from mental health disorders and behavioral issues. As a DNP, psychiatric nurse practitioners have a level of autonomy that registered nurses don't. That means they have even more independence in their work and more potential for growth in their career.

Some common disorders that psychiatric nurse practitioners treat include substance abuse disorders, behavioral disorders, anxiety, ADHD, and mood disorders. With mental illness on the rise, it's more important than ever to have qualified professionals to help diagnose and treat disorders.

They work with patients throughout diagnosis, treatment, and recovery to make sure they receive the best care possible through the entire process. They also work with both the patients and their families to educate them on the ins and outs of the illness, so they understand how to cope. Psychiatric nurse practitioners support patients in maintaining good mental and physical health and wellness while simultaneously managing their conditions.

How to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner

Becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner will require in-depth formal education and clinical experience. Here are the exact steps you will need to take if you're interested in pursuing this career path.

1. Complete your BSN

The first step in your journey to becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner is to complete your Bachelor of Science in Nursing. You will need to have this degree to gain admittance to a DNP program. While taking your bachelor's program, you will learn about medicine and the nursing profession on a broader level. You may also have the opportunity during this time to take some specialized courses to begin niching down into psychiatric health. On top of your in-class studies, you will also need a set number of clinical experience hours to get your degree.

2. Become an RN

Once you have your BSN, you can then get your RN license. You will need to have your registered nurse license to get into most DNP programs and continue your education. To become an RN, you will need to take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. You can then choose to enter the work for and begin gaining on the job training or pursue your DNP right away to specialize in psychiatric nursing. Alternatively, you can do both at the same time.

3. Earn your DNP

You will need to have your full DNP to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The great thing about getting your DNP is that there are many different ways that you can do your studies. There are flexible online options, which will allow you to study while working at the same time. That way, you already have your foot in the door and experience working in a medical setting. You will need to ensure that the program you choose meets your states licensing board requirements and is accredited. While studying for your DNP, you will be able to specialize in psychiatric health and gain more in-depth knowledge of the topic specifically.

4. Get your PMHNP-BC certificate

After you've graduated and have your DNP, you are ready to become a certified psychiatric nurse practitioner. The most common certification to get is the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified. It is valid for five years, and to get it, you will need to pass a certification exam.

5. Obtain a state license to practice

The licensing required to practice as a nurse practitioner will vary from state to state. You will need to determine the specific license that is required based on where you live. They will all contain a mix of requirements, including on-the-job experience, education, and an examination of some description. Once you've got your state licensure, you can finally begin your search for the perfect employment opportunity. If you've been studying your DNP while working in a medical facility, you may have already built the connections necessary to secure a role or get a promotion to a psychiatric position within the same facility.

The job responsibilities of a psychiatric nurse practitioner

Psychiatric nurse practitioners who have a DNP have tons of different job responsibilities and tasks that can vary daily. While it will depend on the facility your work in and the demographic that you work with, here are some of the tasks that you can expect as a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

1. Perform mental health assessments for patients

When meeting with new patients, the first thing a psychiatric nurse practitioner will do is do a full mental health assessment. Mental health assessments will include a physical exam and looking at previous medical history and current medications. They will also include a deep dive into family medical history to identify any genetic, mental illnesses that may be common in the family.

Mental health assessments involve a lot of questions and talking through patient concerns. You may ask the patient about their symptoms, how they are coping/taking care of themselves, and how they feel emotionally.

2. Patient diagnosis and treatment plan creation

Psychiatric nurse practitioners with their DNP will use the mental health assessment results to make a diagnosis on the patients' condition. Once they have a thorough understanding of the illness or disorder, they design a treatment plan accordingly. All diagnosis and treatment planning is done in line with strict regulations and statutes that govern health care professions, which you will learn about when studying for your DNP.

3. Collaborate with other medical staff for optimal patient care

While psychiatric nurse practitioners have the authority to practice independently, they still spend a lot of time collaborating with other medical professionals. You could work with school psychiatrists, staff psychiatrists, GPs, nursing staff, local counselors, technical staff, and more to ensure optimal patient care. You may also collaborate with other specialists based on your patients' needs to create cohesive and effective treatment plants.

4. Order and interpret lab tests

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are often responsible for ordering lab tests to help them diagnose their patients' condition accurately. When studying for your DNP, you will learn exactly how to determine what lab tests to order and how to interpret them. Interpreting lab test results correctly is extremely important to avoid misdiagnosis of patients. After interpreting lab test results, the psychiatric nurse practitioners' job is to explain those results to the patients, their families, and other relevant medical staff.

5. Prescribe medication

While registered nurses do not have the authority to prescribe medication, once you have your DNP, you can. Psychiatric nurse practitioners can legally prescribe medications to their patients, as long as they align with treatment guidelines. If assessments and lab test results are conclusive, then psychiatric nurse practitioners can include prescription medication as part of their patient's treatment plan.

6. Maintain all patient medical records

Psychiatric nurse practitioners also have such administrative duties to do as well. Whenever they meet with patients, they must update their medical records with relevant information. They must also include patient data in case presentations so that other medical professionals who are working with the patient can access the details. It could include other nurses, therapists, nutritionists, doctors, and pharmacists who need to access patient details when executing their portion of the treatment plan.

The most critical skills needed to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner

Beyond the clinical and formal skills, you learn in your DNP, some other skills will benefit you in your career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The job is mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding and requires a particular skill set to succeed in this role.

Some of the most important skills you can have as a psychiatric nurse practitioner include:

1. Problem-solving

The primary role of a psychiatric nurse practitioner is to solve problems. Patients come to you with a mental health concern, and it's your job to assess the problem and determine the best solution. From the first time you meet with a patient, throughout the treatment process, you will be solving problems. You need problem-solving skills to determine risk factors based on all the information you have access to (in this case, family history, past medical history, substance abuse, trauma, environment, family problems, etc.). You must also take advantage of all the resources at your disposal. Utilizing resources will allow you to come to the best solution for your patient.

Problem-solving skills are something you can develop over time with experience, but it comes more naturally for some people than others.

2. Professionalism

Psychiatric nurse practitioners spend their careers working with patients with mental health problems, and it can be extremely hard for them and their families to discuss with others. Providing an entirely professional environment with no judgment where patients feel comfortable is essential to success as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. When providing analysis and delivering results to patients and their families, you must be able to do so respectfully and with understanding. Doing so will allow you to establish trust with patients and encourage them to confide in you with information to help you do your job more effectively.

3. Data analysis

One of the main components of being a psychiatric nurse practitioner is analyzing data. Diagnosing mental illness can often be much more complicated than diagnosing physical ailments. The symptoms and signs aren't always black and white and need a more thorough analysis to ensure that they give proper treatment. If you want to be successful as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, you will need to hone your data analysis skills. When you're completing your DNP, you will get the opportunity to build your medical knowledge and use it effectively to analyze patient data.

Where do psychiatric nurse practitioners work?

Once you've completed your DNP, you can work as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in a variety of different settings. Nurse practitioners have legal autonomy to open their own private practice. While that is an excellent option for those who are entrepreneurial-minded, there are many other places where you can secure a role as a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

You can work in correctional facilities, providing support and treatment for inmates. Mental illness is extremely common within correctional facilities, so working there gives you the chance to help turn people's lives around.

They can also work within more traditional settings like hospitals and medical clinics. They may and even with corporations and businesses to provide mental health and wellness services to staff. You have the flexibility to work with organizations, facilities, and people that you are passionate about and truly make a difference in their lives.

How much do psychiatric nurse practitioners make?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners make an average annual salary of $107,180 in the United States. The salary can vary based on how many years you work in the profession and the amount of schooling and additional skills you have.


Pursuing a career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner allows you to impact the lives of many patients positively. The job demand for psychiatric nurse practitioners will only continue to rise as more people become comfortable seeking help for their mental illnesses. With a nurse practitioner's authority, you have many progression opportunities and could even open your own private practice one day.

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