In the United States, one in four adults experiences a mental illness each year and one in 17 adults live with a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Mental illnesses can include a wide array of medical conditions that affect mental well-being, mood, thinking patterns, and behavior. Many mental illnesses are even more devastating than bodily conditions, but luckily psychiatric nurses work hard to assist patients in overcoming their illness. As part of the treatment team with psychiatrists, counselors, and other physicians, psychiatric nurses use their expertise to provide comprehensive mental health care. Psychiatric nurses strive to develop treatment plans and provide supportive counseling to help patients lead fulfilling, productive lives once again. Below is a full job description detailing what nurses can expect from specializing in the psychiatric nursing field.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for the 2.6 million registered nurses working in America is $69,790, which is equivalent to a mean hourly wage of $33.55. In particular, psychiatric nurses who specialize in helping physicians implement mental health treatments earn a median salary of $68,272 each year.

Beginning Salary

When just starting out in a psychiatric unit, new nurses can expect to land in the bottom tenth percentile of earnings with a yearly salary of around $45,880. However, it’s important to note that psychiatric nurses with more experience and leadership responsibilities often climb the salary ladder to bring home upwards of $85,097 annually.

Key Responsibilities

Psychiatric nurses are given the overall responsibility of treating patients who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction, dementia, anorexia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychiatric nurses spend the majority of their day developing treatment plans, taking patients’ medical histories, offering counseling, helping patients tackle everyday tasks, delivering prescribed medications, and aiding in the recovery process. Many psychiatric nurses will teach patients and their families about the mental illness to ensure patients will cope when returning to their daily routine. Psychiatric nursing is focused on providing holistic, long-term assistance to aid in patients emotional, psychological, and social growth.

Necessary Skills

In order to be successful, psychiatric nurses must be compassionate with the ability to empathize with individuals who are struggling to overcome mental illness. Emotional maturity and good crisis intervention skills is essential for psychiatric nurses to effectively support patients who are often angry at their situation. Psychiatric nurses must be good communicators with the interpersonal skills to give patients clear instructions and convey treatment results with other healthcare providers. Being detail-oriented and having solid organizational skills is important for psychiatric nurses to keep meticulous records, especially on medications. Psychiatric nurses should also have excellent problem-solving skills to think quickly on their feet whenever an emergency arises.

Degree and Education Requirements

It’s possible for individuals to work in the psychiatric nursing after completing a short training program to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). But, the majority of psychiatric nurses have received an RN license by completing a two-year associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). When choosing a school, it’s best to find an accredited program that offers elective or concentration coursework in psychiatric or mental health nursing. RNs who return to school to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) have the ability to advance their careers as Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNPs) with more independent diagnosis and treatment duties.

Pros and Cons of the Position

Nursing is an in-demand field with high levels of employment growth and critical shortages, so finding employment is hardly ever an issue. In particular, psychiatric nurses can work in a wide variety of multi-faceted, patient-facing positions in mental health settings depending on their interests. Psychiatric nurses have the rewarding opportunity to make a difference in improving the lives of those with mental instability. Psychiatric nurses also earn an above-average salary with the potential for advancement to the nurse practitioner level. On the flip side, psychiatric nurses often must work long shifts during irregular hours to provide 24/7 assistance to their patients. Psychiatric nurses work with patients suffering an array of mental health conditions, some of which may be potentially dangerous to staff or themselves. Psychiatric nurses must always be prepared to tackle all types of mental and emotional upheaval, which can be stressful and raise risk for burnout.

Getting Started

While earning your nursing education, you should begin to build practicum and internship experience in psychiatric healthcare settings to determine if this is the right specialty area for you. Once you complete your degree, you’ll be qualified to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to legally practice without supervision. From there, start applying for staff nursing positions in inpatient or outpatient care centers that serve patients undergoing mental health treatment. After you’ve practiced at least two years full-time in registered nursing and have completed 2,000 hours of clinical practice in psychiatric-mental health nursing, it’s best to receive professional certification too. Through the ANCC, you can become Registered Nurse-Board Certified (RN-BC) in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing by passing a 175-question certification exam.

Future Outlook

As demand for healthcare services grows, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the overall employment of registered nurses will skyrocket by 19 percent before 2022, thus creating around 526,800 new positions. Job turnover rates in psychiatric-mental health nursing tends to be considerably higher than other specialties, so there’s likely to be a dire shortage. With the large baby boomer population reaching late adulthood, there’s also expected to be a large demand for psychiatric nurses to help patients living with the effects of Alzheimer’s diseases and other dementias. Psychiatric nurses with a bachelor’s degree and valid RN licensure should have the best job prospects. Employment can be found in hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, addiction treatment centers, community mental health programs, outpatient clinics, correctional facilities, and even schools.

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