However, some patients still receive less than adequate mental health care, because the industry is understaffed. This is evidenced by skyrocketing job growth in the field as health care organizations are hiring at a rapid pace to fill the void. If you think this might be the career for you, don’t wait any longer to get started.
First, though, it’s smart to learn a little more about the industry as a whole. Let’s talk about psychiatric nurses are and what they do, challenges they face, money and job opportunities, required education and more. Only once you have a well-rounded picture of the industry and your potential place within it, you can make the best decision for your career and future.
What Is a Psychiatric Nurse?
Psychiatric nurses help treat patients who have been diagnosed with mental conditions ranging from mild to severe. These include commonly known conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. In addition to having knowledge of pharmaceuticals, which enables you to write prescriptions for patients to help treat chemical imbalances, you will be trained in cognitive and behavioral therapies so you can engage with people on a spoken level to address their fears, behaviors and goals.
In addition to speaking with patients themselves, psychiatric nurses also speak with and educate spouses, family, and members of the community. They frequently work as part of a medical team with doctors, other nurses and specialists. They may even work with government employees or social workers, helping their patients navigate the challenges of state and federal systems.
The main goal of any psychiatric nurse is to help patients live the most productive lives possible. That includes providing interventions, responding to crises, adjusting medications, speaking with patients regularly, diagnosing and evaluating on an ongoing basis, and helping their patients master the skills necessary to be successful members of society.
What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Do?
Psychiatric nursing is an advanced practice which enables you to assess, diagnose and treat individuals as well as entire families suffering from mental disorders, and to identify the potential for such disorders using both medication and therapy.
Psychiatric nurses may either be primary care providers, working in institutions to oversee patients who have recently undergone a severe mental health or other life crisis, or they may operate as specialists, whom their patients visit on a regular or semi-regular basis for diagnosis, evaluation and adjustments of medication or therapy over time.
As a psychiatric nurse, you may help people overcome phobias, modulate the effects of conditions such as bipolar disorder or psychosis, or help them overcome substance abuse. You will have contact with many people, including patients, their families, health organizations, other medical providers, insurance companies and the community as a whole.
Before learning more about what psychiatric nurses do, however, it’s important to understand which job titles fall under the umbrella term “psychiatric nurse.” In your research about psychiatric nurse careers, you may see several titles, including Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse (PMHN), Advanced Practice Resident Nurse (APRN) and Psychiatric Mental Health Advanced Practice Resident Nurse (PMH-APRN), which is a bit of a mouthful. Some of the definitions and acronyms may prove a bit confusing, so let’s get those out of the way upfront:
Advanced Practice Resident Nurse: An APRN has earned a master’s degree or more in nursing. As the title indicates, they are resident nurses who have gone beyond the typical scope of an RN and now specialize in a certain field. These include Certified Nurse Midwives, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Practitioners and Clinical Nurse Specialists. For our purposes, only the last two matter, because only they can work as psychiatric nurses. While all psychiatric nurses are APRNs, not all APRNs are psychiatric nurses.
Advanced Practice Resident Nurse – Psychiatric Mental Health: This is one type of psychiatric nurse, and one of the most common, which is why you may see the term pop up when learning more about these careers. These nurses are still APRNs, and as such can administer medication and offer a variety of therapies to help their patients improve their lives.
Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse: This is the umbrella term that describes nurses working in mental health, and is the same as a “psychiatric nurse.” Don’t be fooled, however: just because the term is different does not mean the requirements are. You will still need to be an APRN to work as a psychiatric nurse. Again, you can enter advanced practice by getting a master’s and becoming a Nurse Practitioner or a Clinical Nurse Specialist.
You may see a few other terms as well, including Psychiatric and Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist (PMHCNS), Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), the latter of which requires a doctoral degree and enables you to practice an even narrower and more specialized niche of medicine.
Psychiatric nurses do a great deal for their patients. They are responsible for assessing a huge number of traits, providing a wide range of diagnoses and managing a significant number of different medications and interactions. As a psychiatric nurse, you may do some or all of the following:
Diagnosing a range of mental health conditions, including psychosis, neurosis, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia and many more
Tracking whether patients are sleeping, eating, exercising, bathing, toileting, dressing and generally taking care of themselves
Assessing mental, emotional and social fitness
Helping patients maintain adequate nutrition and physical fitness
Helping patients deal with other people and navigate relationships
Assisting patients in the formation of healthier thoughts and behaviors
Weaning patients off drugs and dealing with substance abuse issues
Helping the elderly live meaningful lives by fighting the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s
Educating families and the community on the nature of mental illness
Prescribing and administering medication
Building alliances with other physicians to help bring about positive change in the mental health community
Of course, it is impossible to list every task a psychiatric nurse must perform to be successful in their field, but the above represent a few of the most common. Psychiatric nurses also maintain their credentials through continuing education and continual reading and often contributing to medical journals.
Psychiatric Nurse Certification & Degree Requirements
Most psychiatric nurses have a Master’s degree, enabling them to work as APRNs. This role also requires they pass board certification for their license, the exact nature of which is dictated by their jurisdiction. Some psychiatric nurses will get a doctorate to practice at an even more advanced level, and will also require a license.
Note that in some cases, you may be able to work as a psychiatric nurse assisting doctors of APRNs if you have only a bachelor’s degree. This role is referred to as a Psychiatric Mental Health Registered Nurses (RN-PMHs), who help a variety of populations with mental illness. However, you will not be able to prescribe medication or practice on your own, but will need to work under a physician or an advanced practice nurse.
They aren't nursing, but you might also consider something like Occupational Therapy, which works with people to set and work toward goals for their daily living and work activities, or Speech-Language Therapy, which can work on speech and language (obviously!) but may also work on things like swallowing and breathing after stroke or injury.
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