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Why Choose a Psychiatric-Mental Health Program?

The need for primary care physicians and specialists — including psychiatrists — is so great that by 2034 there may be up to 124,000 vacancies in the U.S., according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Yet, there are not enough psychiatrists to meet the demand for patients with mental illnesses. Over half of the counties in the U.S. do not even have a single psychiatrist.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this need, as AAMC explains in a report on psychiatrist shortages. Roughly one in five adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness in 2019, just before the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, over 40% of adults reported experiencing anxiety or depression, let alone other types of mental illness. This percentage has lessened but remains substantially higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Contributing to the problem are a growing patient population that is older and sicker than in the past and rising rates of addiction, depression and suicide. In addition, the majority of healthcare providers are reaching retirement age. Nurses who graduate from a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) – Psych-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program can help alleviate the crisis.

What Is Mental Health Nursing?

The practice of a psych-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) is an advanced specialty in nursing. Mental health nursing involves delivering medical and psychiatric care to individuals, groups, families and communities. Within the field of mental health nursing, nurses may further specialize in treating:

  • Adults
  • Children
  • Those battling addiction
  • The homeless population
  • The incarcerated population
  • Veterans
  • Victims of violence

What Is a Psych-Mental Health NP?

A PMHNP is an advanced practice nurse who provides care to patients with behavioral, emotional, addiction-related or other mental health issues. Some states require NPs to have a physician oversee their practice, while others allow them autonomy.

Nurses can obtain their PMHNP-BC (Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified) credential through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). This credential involves meeting all eligibility requirements — such as having an MSN or higher-level degree from a specially accredited PMHNP program — and passing ANCC’s PMHNP board certification examination.

What Does a Psych-Mental Health NP Do?

PMHNPs take a holistic approach to mental health, providing both physical and mental healthcare. These NPs not only assess, diagnose and treat patients but counsel and educate them and their family members about conditions and treatment options. They also may identify risk factors that can lead to psychiatric disorders. Psych-mental health NPs may use both pharmaceutical and psychotherapy interventions. The role of a psych-mental health NP may consist of:

  • Documenting a patient’s medical and psychiatric health history
  • Addressing symptoms
  • Assessing causes for mental illness such as genetics, family dysfunction, neglect, abuse, violence or neurological trauma
  • Diagnosing patients who may have a mental illness, developmental disability or substance use disorder
  • Collaborating with other physicians and psychiatrists about care plans
  • Providing care to patients with mental health conditions
  • Providing patient education
  • Assisting patients with a chronic disease or disability
  • Counseling patients who are victims of crime or abuse
  • Conducting group therapy sessions
  • Managing a patient’s care by using behavioral modification techniques or medication
  • Evaluating progress

Why Do Nurses Consider a Career as a Psych-Mental Health NP?

Psych-mental health NPs can combine two nursing disciplines to help vulnerable patient populations. In their specialty, they combine their clinical nursing preparation with psychiatric knowledge.

Nurses who become PMHNPs possess excellent leadership and communication skills and demonstrate empathy. When dealing with criminals, drug addicts or violent offenders, they can refrain from judgment and prejudice.

Plus, PMHNPs can have substantial autonomy and flexibility in their career paths. Depending on varying state laws and licensure requirements, they may have the opportunity to work independently and even open their own practices. As of April 2022, 26 states and Washington D.C. grant NPs full practice authority, according to AANP’s State Practice Environment map.

Some states only lifted practice authority restrictions for NPs temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, in its seminal report, “The Future of Nursing 2020-2030: Charting a Path to Achieve Health Equity,” the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) emphasizes the importance of granting NPs full practice authority nationwide. NAM maintains this shift in policy is essential to addressing social determinants of health, access to care and health equity.

How Do Psych-Mental Health NPs Aid Patients Beyond Providing Care?

Besides delivering care to patients, PMHNPs advocate for improved mental healthcare by taking these measures:

  • Contributing to the development of effective policies
  • Promoting quality care
  • Supporting healthcare reform

A large segment of society is affected by mental health conditions. A growing public awareness of mental health issues is driving the need for more PMHNPs. These specialized nurse practitioners are helping fill the void left by a lack of physicians and psychiatrists.

To start a career in psych-mental health, you need a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and a valid license to practice as a registered nurse. Then you can apply to a program like the online MSN – Psych-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program offered by Northern Kentucky University (NKU).

Learn more about NKU’s online MSN – Psych-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program.

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