Should I See a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

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Updated August 18, 2022

Have you tried looking for a therapist with no success? During a growing shortage of mental health professionals, PMHNPs may offer greater availability than therapists. Find out what PMHNPs do and how to find one.

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If you're seeking mental healthcare, your first thought might be to look for a psychologist or psychiatrist. Amid a growing therapist shortage, it can be difficult to find a mental health professional with availability. It's commonplace to be waitlisted for months or to never hear back from clinics at all.

A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) might better fit your needs. But what exactly is a PMHNP, and what services do they offer?

What Does a PMHNP Do?

PMHNPs are registered nurses (RNs) with advanced training in mental health. They can assess, diagnose, and treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, mood disorders, personality disorders, and other mental disorders.

PMHNPs often work in hospitals, rehab facilities, and other inpatient and outpatient healthcare centers. In these environments, PMHNPs work with other healthcare professionals to discuss patients' specific needs and create a holistic care plan. The role includes evaluating incoming patients' medical history, familial situations, and psychological and physical symptoms.

With this information, they can diagnose patients and formulate treatment plans, which typically combine therapy, counseling, and medication.

In many states, PMHNPs can even operate independent practices. So, many run their clinics and offer therapy through telehealth instead of working in clinical settings.

PMHNPs Vs. Psychiatrists

When it comes to the duties of PMHNPs vs. psychiatrists, there is a significant amount of overlap. Both diagnose and treat patients with mental health disorders, create care plans, provide psychotherapy, and prescribe medication.

The major difference between PMHNPs and psychiatrists is the amount of time spent in school. PMHNPs spend 6-7 years completing their bachelor's and master's degrees, while psychiatrists take about 12 years to earn their licenses.

PMHNPs spend their undergraduate years in nursing school, first becoming an RN. Then, they attend PMHNP-specific graduate programs to specialize in psychiatry.

Unlike PMHNPs, psychiatrists are physicians who spend about 4 years in medical school and 4 years in residency.

Some jurisdictions require PMHNPs to work under physician supervision. However, many states allow them to work autonomously. An American Journal of Preventive Medicine article suggests that PMHNPS may help address the mental health practitioner shortage.

These differences aside, from the patient perspective, a PMHNP and a psychiatrist are quite similar. However, PMHNPs are more likely to have availability for new patients, and they usually provide their services at lower rates than psychiatrists.

Should I See a PMHNP?

Like counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists, PMHNPs have their own specialty areas, therapy modalities, and treatment philosophies. Many focus on certain demographics, such as those with eating disorders or substance abuse issues. Some centralize medication in treatment, while others choose to avoid prescribing medication except in extreme cases.

When choosing a mental health professional, consider whether they have experience helping patients with similar needs, if their treatment philosophy speaks to you, and if they are within your insurance network. Many PMHNPs accept various private insurance plans, Medicare, Medicaid, or offer sliding scale therapy.

Once determining which mental health professional(s) you are interested in seeing, inquire whether they have time for a phone call. Some offer free consultations to determine whether or not they are a good fit for you.

You can find PMHNPs on Psychology Today, Brightside Health, and the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

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