Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Master of Science in Nursing Degree Programs

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As advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) that provide mental health care services, psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP) serve a patient population group that has historically been underserved.

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Psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners assess, diagnose, and treat individuals and families with psychiatric disorders, or who otherwise have the potential for developing such disorders. They work with populations across the lifespan, from children to adolescents to adults to older adults, performing physical and psychiatric assessments and ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests.

Psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners are proficient in the art and science of short-term psychotherapy. As such, these APRNs are skilled in a full range of therapeutic approaches and interventions, allowing them to administer psychotherapy and prescribe medication, including psychotropic medication. Their work includes synthesizing theoretical, scientific, and clinical knowledge so as to assess and manage mental illness.

Psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners perform a variety of duties, including:

  • Admitting, discharging, and providing ongoing care in emergency departments and inpatient settings
  • Participating in call rotation with other providers in inpatient settings
  • Assessing patients on admission
  • Performing and documenting history and physical examination based on age, history, and complex for chronically ill patients
  • Assessing the impact of acute, critical and/or chronic illnesses or injuries on patient health and functional status
  • Assessing patient and family bio/psycho/social needs based on physical and age-specific needs and providing psychosocial support to patients and family members
  • Educating patients and families about self-management of acute and chronic illnesses
  • Determining the need for laboratory and diagnostic studies and initiating, ordering and interpreting the results

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners work in a variety of settings that include:

  • Hospitals
  • Community mental health centers
  • Ambulatory care clinics
  • Psychiatric outpatient clinics
  • Psychiatric inpatient units
  • Private practice

How to Become a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner: Earning an MSN in Preparation for National Certification and State Licensure

A Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner track is specifically designed to prepare RNs to assess, diagnose, and treat individuals with psychiatric disorders, and to contribute to policy development, quality improvement, practice evaluation, and healthcare reform.

Graduates of these programs are prepared to provide mental health services in psychiatric mental health inpatient or outpatient facilities to patients with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or dual diagnoses. The coursework, field experience, and research of an MSN Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program allows students to acquire the knowledge, values, and skills necessary for both national certification and state licensure.

RNs with their sights set on becoming a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner must earn a master’s or higher degree with a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner focus in order to qualify for national certification in preparation for APRN state licensure. All boards of nursing that offer APRN licensure to nurse practitioners with a psychiatric/mental health patient population focus recognize the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC) certification available through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

Standard MSN- Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner programs require enrolling students to possess an active and unencumbered RN license and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Most programs also require candidates to possess at least some experience working as an RN in a psychiatric/mental health capacity.

Depending on the program, candidates may also need to possess:

  • Minimum undergraduate GPA
  • Minimum GRE scores
  • Letters of recommendation

Though a BSN is the standard for conventional two-year terminal master’s programs, a number of MSN programs provide nurses and other professionals with non-traditional educational backgrounds with the opportunity to pursue their MSN through an accelerated program:

  • RN-to-MSN Programs for ADN-Prepared RNs: RN-to-MSN programs allow RNs that possess an associate’s degree to complete both their BSN and MSN in an accelerated format that typically takes about three years.
  • Direct-Entry MSN Programs for Bachelor’s-Educated Non-Nursing Professionals: Direct-entry MSN programs (also referred to as entry-level MSN degrees) allow non-nursing professionals with bachelor’s degrees in another major to pursue an MSN. These programs allow students to first earn their RN and then work toward their MSN, all in one accelerated program that takes between three and four years to complete.

Other MSN program options include part-time programs and those that offer partially or fully online formats. Online MSN programs allow students to complete most or all of the didactic requirements through online study and then complete the clinical requirements at partner sites close to home, eliminating the need to travel or relocate. In most cases, clinical requirements can be completed at the student’s place of employment.

MSN Degrees for Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioners: Program Content and Structure

Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner MSN programs, which take between 16 and 24 months to complete on a full-time basis, consist of two primary components: didactic and clinical:

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Didactic Coursework

The coursework of a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner master’s degree is based on a holistic model of psychiatric and mental healthcare. Coursework prepares students to diagnose and treat simple and complex psychiatric and mental health problems ranging from adjustment disorders to serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar illnesses, and major depression.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) is the national accrediting agency of nurse practitioner programs in the U.S. Accredited MSN Nurse Practitioner programs with a focus on psychiatric/mental health prepare graduates to provide mental health promotion and mental illness diagnoses and treatment across the lifespan.

Students of these programs may also choose to further specialize their MSN by focusing on a subspecialty of psychiatric/mental health, such as:

  • Child and Adolescent Health
  • Gerontological Nursing
  • Forensics
  • Substance Abuse Disorders

The didactic curriculum content of a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner MSN program addresses the three P’s found within all graduate programs that prepare advanced practice registered nurses – advanced pharmacology, physical assessment, and physiology/pathophysiology.

Additionally, these programs include psychiatric/mental health-specific content, which includes such courses as:

  • Advanced Health Assessment Applications for Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing
  • Models and Theories of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing
  • Theoretical Foundations in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Across the Lifespan
  • Theoretical Foundations of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing with Groups and Families
  • Neuroscience for Mental Health Practitioners
  • Population-Based Mental Health Care Across the Lifespan

Clinical Experiences

The clinical component of an MSN-Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner degree program consists of supervised experiences that prepare students to provide psychiatric mental health services to patients across the lifespan. Clinical experiences, which typically total more than 500 hours, prepare students to provide comprehensive management to psychiatric patients, which would include both physical and psychiatric care.

Clinical rotations allow students to develop and demonstrate competence in psychotherapeutic modalities including group therapy.

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