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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects overall employment of nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners (NPs) to grow 45% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. NPs account for more than four-fifths of that growth.
Currently, more students are showing interest in the role of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). Becoming a PMHNP gives candidates more autonomy compared to registered nurses (RNs) and allows them to work in the mental health field without earning a psychology degree.
Working as a PMHNP
Let's break down the responsibilities of PMHNPs, their salaries, and how they differ from other mental health practitioners.
What Does a PMHNP Do?
PMHNPs are advanced practice nurses with a wide range of skills and abilities. Like RNs, they can assess patients, administer treatment, and formulate treatment plans. They also diagnose patients with mental health conditions, provide psychotherapy, and prescribe medications.
PMHNPs educate patients, families, and the community on mental health disorders and destigmatize treatment. Some PMHNPs specialize in certain types of patients, such as children, adolescents, families, or those with substance abuse problems.
These healthcare professionals find employment in hospitals, clinics, and public health facilities, often working with social workers and various medical providers. Some even choose to open their own private practices in states with full practice autonomy.
PMHNPs make an average of $114,00 per year, according to Payscale data from March 2022, but pay varies significantly by location. In major cities, PMHNPs can easily earn more than $150,000 per year.
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How to Become a PMHNP
It typically takes about 6-7 years to become a PMHNP, which accounts for four years of undergraduate studies and 2-3 years in graduate school. However, it could take more or less time, depending on your state's licensing requirements, the length of academic programs, and whether or not the candidate chooses to work as an RN before becoming an advanced practice nurse.
- 1. Become a Registered Nurse (RN)
The first step to working as a PMHNP is to become a registered nurse (RN). This typically requires completion of a bachelor's degree in nursing. While there are still some states that allow associate degree-holders to apply for licensure, this is becoming less common. You can find a list of state's individual requirements here.
To obtain licensure as an RN, candidates need to pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX). This typically requires a minimum of four weeks of daily study, although preparing for months in advance is ideal. The NCLEX uses a pass or fail scoring system to measure competency.
- 2. Enroll in a PMHNP Graduate Program
Many choose to work in nursing before continuing their education toward becoming a PMHNP. Others apply for PMHNP programs soon after obtaining their RN license.
The next step is to earn a master of science in nursing (MSN), which typically takes 2-3 years to complete. There is also the option to pursue a doctorate, which requires a larger financial investment and time commitment.
At present, the MSN is still the standard education requirement to become a PMHNP. However, there is a movement to increase the requirement to become a PMHNP to the doctoral level, which could happen in the near future.
Candidates should carefully consider the accreditation of graduate programs before enrolling. The most respected accrediting agencies for PMHNP programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).
Candidates also need to accumulate 500 supervised hours directly related to the PMHNP client population to qualify for PMHNP certification. Some MSN programs require students to complete a certain number of these hours while enrolled.
- 3. Apply for Certification in Your State
After completing any remaining hours needed to fulfill the supervised hours requirement, candidates can apply for certification in the state they wish to practice. This requires a passing score on the PMHNP exam administered by the American Nursing Credentialing Center (ANCC). Candidates typically schedule their exam time 1-3 months after graduation to allow time to prepare.
The computerized exam allows 3.5 hours to answer 175 questions about advanced practice skills, scientific foundations, diagnosis and treatment, psychotherapy, and ethical and legal principles.
After passing the PMHNP exam, candidates need to renew their certification every five years through both the ANCC and your state's board.
PMHNPs vs. Other Mental Health Practitioners
You may be wondering how PMHNPs are different from similar healthcare professionals.
Registered Nurse vs. PMHNP
All PMHNPs are RNs before becoming advanced practice nurses. The biggest difference between the two is that PMHNPs can prescribe medication, order tests, and diagnose patients.
Nurse Practitioner vs. PMHNP
NPs can specialize in a variety of areas, such as family practice, geriatrics, and cardiology. PMHNPs are NPs who specialize in mental health.
Psychiatrist vs. PMHNP
There is significant overlap between the role of psychiatrist and PMHNPs. Both can treat the same types of mental health conditions and prescribe medication. However, psychiatrists must complete a medical degree, which takes longer than earning an MSN. Psychiatrists also earn a higher salary on average. PMHNPs commonly work on collaborative teams, while psychiatrists are more likely to own private practices.