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The Role of a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

Published on: September 27, 2023

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s estimated that more than 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness. 

This statistic totaled about 57.8 million people in 2021 and includes both those with any mental illness (AMI) and those with serious mental illness (SMI), which is a mental illness that inhibits a person’s daily living. In addition to mental illness in the adult population, 1 in 10 youth in the U.S. are experiencing depression that’s severely limiting their ability to function. 

Despite these numbers, of those 57.8 million adults, only 47.2%—less than half—received mental health services in the last year. A third of adults reported they weren’t able to receive the treatment they needed, and 42% of adults with AMI couldn’t afford care. Almost 60% of youth with major depression don’t receive any mental health treatment at all. 

While there is a vital need for mental health care, there are a limited number of professionals able to deliver such care. There are an estimated 350 individuals for every one mental health provider, although the number of active mental health professionals may be overrepresented here; some may be no longer practicing or not accepting new patients.

This is where a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) can make a big difference. PMHNPs are leaders in mental health care across the healthcare system. Their knowledge of mental illnesses and psychiatric treatments provides patients in all healthcare environments with the necessary care to live vibrant, healthy lives. 

Whether you’ve been looking to work in mental health services or you’ve been wondering, “What can you do with a doctorate in nursing?” — the PMHNP position might be right for you. Let’s dig into the details of this in-demand medical career.

What is a PMHNP?

A PMHNP is a specialized nurse practitioner position. As experts on mental health illnesses, PMHNPs assess, diagnose, and treat the psychiatric needs of patients. They take a holistic approach to medical care and understand the connections between mental and physical health. PMHNPs work both as individuals and as part of professional teams to ensure patients from all backgrounds receive optimal psychiatric care.

While PMHNPs carry out many similar duties to other nurse practitioners, they also have a number of unique roles and specialties that make them integral to a well-functioning healthcare system. Every day, their experience aids the constantly changing world of healthcare in bettering practices for people with various mental illnesses and mind-and-body needs.

What does a psychiatric nurse practitioner do?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners perform a wide range of services for a wide range of people. No demographic is without mental health needs, so PMHNPs can be found working with all ages, genders, and populations.

The roles of a PMHNP can vary slightly depending on where they work and whether they have a more acute specialty, but there are a few key duties psychiatric nurse practitioners consistently carry out. On a regular basis, PMHNPs:

  • Assess, diagnose, and treat mental illnesses
  • Conduct both physical and psychosocial assessments and provide treatments such as therapy, prescription medications, and emergency psychiatric care
  • Track patient recoveries through treatment effectiveness evaluations

PMHNPs give professional, practical, and emotional support throughout every patient’s medical health journey. The care of psychiatric nurse practitioners is essential to anyone’s mental recovery and rehabilitation.

A psychiatric nurse practitioner vs psychiatrist

At first glance, psychiatric nurse practitioners and psychiatrists could seem like interchangeable job titles. Both jobs care for mental health needs and work in the medical field. Despite their similarities, though, there are a number of differences between the two careers:

  Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner


Education Master’s or doctorate in nursing with a psychiatric nurse concentration; two years of work experience Doctor of medicine or osteopathic medicine; four years of psychiatric residency
Salary  $105,403 $229,034
Roles Assess, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions, provide psychotherapy and counseling, prescribe medication, educate and create mental health resources for families Assess, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions, provide psychotherapy and counseling, prescribe medication
Certifications Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Across the Lifespan Certification (PMHNP-BC) and Nurse Practitioner State License Board certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and Medical Doctor State License
Practice Settings Outpatient clinics, correctional facilities, addiction treatment centers, and inpatient hospitals; more likely to work in a hospital or mental health clinic than a psychiatrist Outpatient clinics, correctional facilities, addiction treatment centers, inpatient hospitals; more likely to work in private practice than an NP


What are some sub-specialties?

With the range of illnesses and populations that PMHNPs serve, the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner scope of practice is a wide one. PMHNPs might specialize in providing psychotherapy to individuals, groups, or families. They may focus on coordinating care with a team of professionals, or on evaluating patients’ non-psychiatric needs in addition to their mental health care. 

Some specializations require specific training. Here are three title specializations in the PMHNP realm:

  1. Child Adolescent PMHNP: These professionals work with youth psychiatric, learning and behavioral disorders. They assess, diagnose, and treat conditions such as ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. 
  2. Geriatric PMHNP: NPs in this specialty work with older adults and their families to help with the aging process. Geriatric populations often battle depression and anxiety surrounding feelings of isolation, grief, and fear of death. PHMNPs in this realm also often treat Alzheimer’s disease and its symptoms.
  3. Addiction Disorder PMHNP: Addiction Disorder Psychiatric Nurses diagnose and treat addictive behaviors of all types, from drugs and alcohol to food and gambling. In addition to the typical settings for PMHNPs, these specialists often work in places like outpatient addiction centers, detoxification centers, halfway houses, and addiction recovery centers. 

What is it like to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner?

Psychiatric nurse practitioners are compassionate, emotionally intelligent healthcare professionals. Their specific roles can vary depending on the environment they work in. PMHNPs in doctor’s offices and hospitals find themselves supporting psychiatrists and physicians by performing tests, assisting and monitoring patient resource needs, and tracking patient progress. In mental health clinics and private practices, PMHNPs tend to work more with personally diagnosing and treating patients. No matter where PMHNPs go or what tasks they take on daily, one thing is the same: psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are confident, efficient, empathetic leaders in the healthcare world.

What is the demand for psychiatric nurse practitioner jobs?

Mental health awareness has become a growing topic in today’s world. As more people learn about the heavy impact of mental illness and the importance of seeking professional help for mental disorders, the need for psychiatric nurses rises.

The number of psychiatric nurse practitioner jobs in the country is expected to grow 26% between 2018-2028. In addition to this rapid rate, the national average psychiatric nurse practitioner salary is $105,403. For PMHNP jobs in California, however, the average salary is around $128,724. 

How to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner

PMHNPS have expert knowledge in their field as a combination of both in-depth practical experience and education through graduate degrees. 

PMHNPs gain experience working as an RN before obtaining either an MSN or a DNP with a focus on psychiatric mental health. Psychiatric nurse practitioners must get board-certified in psychiatric nursing, which happens through obtaining a graduate degree.

The University of San Diego Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science offers one of the most robust PMHNP programs in California. Both the Masters of Science in Nursing program and the BSN to DNP program offer tracks for a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner certification, giving nurses the opportunity to explore different paths toward specializing in psychiatric health. The classes for PMHNP students prepare future nurses with knowledge and firsthand experience so they can serve patients of all backgrounds with confidence and competence. 

At USD, we empower nurses to lead in the healthcare world. If you want to learn more about how USD SON will help hone the skills you need to thrive in your career, we invite you to request more information about our programs today. 

You can also download our MSN Guide or DNP Guide to read more about our uniquely designed psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner programs.

Download the DNP Guide

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