How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

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A psychiatric nurse practitioner meets with a patient.Mental illness and substance use disorders impact some 56 million Americans, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the shortage of mental health professionals has created a barrier to treatment.

Consequently, psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) is a fast-growing and in-demand career. Nurses who choose this path provide professional mental health services to patients in a variety of settings, such as public, private and state-run hospitals; community mental health care clinics; and private practice. Their primary role is to assess, diagnose and treat patients with mental health or substance use issues.

Individuals interested in learning more about how to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner must start by developing the knowledge and skills they’ll need to be successful. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and completing an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing with a PMHNP track, can prepare graduates to pursue jobs in this field.

Step 1: Earn a BSN

The first step toward becoming a PMHNP is to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). BSN degree programs are offered on campus and online, and full-time students typically find they can complete the coursework in approximately four years. Sample BSN courses may cover biology, microbiology, organic chemistry, human anatomy, client assessment, clinical pharmacology and fundamentals of nursing practice.

Although BSN admissions requirements vary from school to school, applicants, including those who have completed a previous bachelor’s degree program, must often meet a minimum grade-point average (GPA) or quality-point average (QPA) requirement. Some programs require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores and official transcripts.

Upon completion of a BSN degree, aspiring registered nurses (RNs) must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN); additional nursing licensing requirements vary depending on the states they wish to practice in. For example, whereas most states require future nurses to pass a criminal background check, several do not.

Step 2: Gain Work Experience

The second step to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner is to gain real-world work experience. Working in a nursing role not only helps individuals apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained in their undergraduate program, but also helps them improve their collaboration, communication and teamwork skills. Ideally, nurses will seek psychiatric or mental health work experience to gain a better understanding of the connections between physical and mental health and prepare them for specializing as PMHNPs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2019, the largest employers of registered nurses were state, local and private hospitals; ambulatory health care services; nursing and residential care facilities; governmental institutions; and state, local and private educational services. Nurses in medical offices or educational institutions may work standard business hours; however, RNs in hospitals and treatment centers usually work shifts — including night, weekend and holiday hours — to provide 24-hour coverage.

Step 3: Earn an MSN

Registered nurses interested in becoming psychiatric nurse practitioners must complete an advanced education. Master of Science in Nursing programs with a psychiatric-mental health focus are designed to prepare students with the skills they’ll need to assess and diagnose the mental health needs of their patients. Coursework in this type of program often includes advanced pharmacology, advanced health assessment, management of psychopathology and psychopharmacology.

Upon completion of the program, which may also include coursework in therapeutic communication, assessing patients with mental illness across their lifespan and clinical therapies and treatments, MSN graduates often find they have the knowledge needed to make psychiatric diagnoses, conduct physical and mental health assessments, design treatment plans and prescribe psychotropic medications for various patient groups.

Step 4: Get a PMHNP Certification

The final step to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner is to get a PMHNP certification. Earning the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHNP-BC) credential requires a competency-based exam that assesses the clinical knowledge and skills of aspiring PMHNPs. To apply for the exam, applicants must hold an active RN license in a U.S. state or territory or a legally recognized equivalent in another country. They must also hold a master’s, postgraduate or doctoral degree from an accredited PMHNP program.

Although the certification is good for only five years, PMHNPs can maintain their credential if they keep their nursing license current and meet ANCC’s professional development requirements at the time of their renewal.

Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

In the U.S., only 44% of adults and 20% of adolescents receive the mental health and substance use care they need, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. As a result, the demand for qualified, skilled psychiatric nurse practitioners remains strong. The BLS projects the overall employment of nurse practitioners to grow by 52% between 2019 and 2029, which is significantly faster than average (4%).

Are you ready to pursue your dream of becoming a PMHNP? Discover how the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Science in Nursing program and its Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner concentration can help prepare you for the job you want.


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?”

American Nurses Credentialing Center, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC)

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, “Report: Shortage of Trained Professionals a Growing Threat to U.S. Mental Health System”

Johnson & Johnson Nursing, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at a Glance, Mental Health Myths and Facts

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCLEX & Other Exams

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Key Substance Use and

Mental Health Indicators in the United States”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses