A psychiatric nurse career isn’t for everybody, but for people with a desire to make a real difference in the lives of people suffering from mental illness, severe emotional distress, and other personality disturbances, it offers an opportunity to do this in a direct, hands-on way. Psychiatric nurses (also referred to as psychiatric and mental health nurses, and commonly shortened to psych nurses) are often the medical professionals who have the biggest healing impact on patients suffering from mental illness and other disorders. Psychiatrists and other medical doctors certainly play a positive role in treating and ameliorating the problems these patients face, but in many cases, it is the psychiatric nurse whom the patients come to trust the most and respond to the best. A psychiatric nurse career can be trying and difficult, but it can also be very rewarding.
Psych nurses work in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, private homes, jails and prisons, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), colleges and universities, and mental health treatment centers run by federal, state, and local government health departments. As registered nurses, they possess all the basic nursing skills that all RNs are required to have, but they are also trained in meeting the specific needs of the mentally ill. Their focus is on forming a relationship with the mentally ill patient. This is known as a therapeutic relationship, or alliance, and the goal is to help patients learn to help themselves, by first letting them know they have someone whom they can trust and rely on. As the alliance develops, the psych nurse will strive to help mentally ill patients become increasingly self-reliant, while also encouraging and advising them to adhere to the treatment plan, which often includes a daily regimen of prescription drugs. They also work with the patient’s family members to educate them about the illness from which the patient is suffering, help them come up with strategies to cope with the illness, and help the patient improve. Of course, since mentally ill patients can sometimes be violent, challenging, or resistant, the nurse must be constantly alert for signs of trouble, so as to never put herself or himself in physical danger. It can be a difficult balancing act, but psychiatric nurses get better at it with experience.
In order to pursue a psychiatric nurse career, a person will generally need to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing, leading to the RN designation. After becoming a registered nurse, the prospective psychiatric nurse would choose to specialize in mental health and seek specific additional training. The training could be on the job, in an educational setting, or most commonly, a combination of both. Once training is completed, the nurse must then take and pass the Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurse Certification exam, or PMHN, in oder to begin working in a psychiatric nurse career. Some psych nurses choose to further their education even more, and go on to earn a master’s degree in order to qualify as an advanced practice nurse.
Psychiatric nurses’ incomes are well above the average in the U.S. The vast majority earn over $55,000 a year, while some earn over $70,000 annually. These numbers are expected to increase substantially, as the U.S. has been faced a critical nursing shortage for several years, and the problem continues to get worse. As the need for nurses, including psychiatric nurses, continues to climb, while the number of new nurses graduating every year remains static, the law of supply and demand dictates that both employment prospects and salaries will continue to improve over the next several years.