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Psychiatric or Mental Health Nurse Practitioner: Alternate Paths to Mental Treatment


“Mental health” is a broad term, encompassing many types of illnesses and issues, all of which relate to the brain and its complex functions. Mental health issues may result from biological factors, such as an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain. They may also arise from life experiences, such as past traumas. Whether genetic or the result of lived experience, mental health problems reveal themselves in many ways, often through thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.


For a long time, mental health was a very private matter. Mental health issues were ignored or suppressed rather than explored and treated. There is no longer such a stigma associated with mental health issues, and many people seek treatment to improve their mental health — and thus their lives. Treatment options have traditionally included psychology and psychiatry, but new types of healthcare services have emerged. There are professions that incorporate both clinical counseling and medication to help patients become happier and healthier. Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners are just two of the professions making a difference in the lives of people with mental health issues.

A Growing Mental Health Shortage

While more people are searching for mental health treatment, it’s becoming tougher for them to find the help they need. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has declared there is a “serious workforce shortage” of mental health professionals, including nurse practitioners, social workers, marriage and family counselors, and behavioral health specialists.


A study of health professional shortage areas (HPSAs) by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that every state had multiple HPSA designations as of December 2018. In fact, only 26.1% of the country’s mental health needs were being met.


The states that needed the most mental health practitioners according to the study were Texas (with a deficit of 585 working mental health professionals), California (433), Florida (409), and Mississippi (385). The state with the lowest need was New Hampshire (three), followed by New Jersey (four), Hawaii (nine), and Alaska (10). According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, on average, one psychiatrist can serve a population of 20,000 to 30,000 people, but that requires a network of other types of mental health practitioners around them.

Psychiatric or Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Registered nurses (RNs) who earn an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), can become nurse practitioners (NPs). In 21 states and Washington, D.C., NPs have the ability to open their own medical practices. In these states, NPs have the autonomy to examine, diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication for patients with a variety of health problems. In the other states, NPs must practice under the guidance of a medical doctor, who signs off on their diagnoses and prescriptions. Increasingly, more states are creating legislation to expand the scope of practice for nurse practitioners to meet healthcare provider shortages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the employment of nurse practitioners to increase 28% between 2018 and 2028, adding 53,300 new jobs during that span. This growth is considerably more than the projected national average for all jobs, which is 5%.


One certification available to NPs is the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Board Certification (PMHNP-BC) from the American Nurses Credentialing Center, which puts NPs in a position to assess, diagnose, and treat a range of mental health conditions.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Psychiatric nurse practitioners tend to focus their practice on more serious mental health illnesses and symptoms, such as psychotic breaks, severe addictions, and other problems that might require intense therapy or inpatient treatment. Psychiatric NPs tend to work in psychiatric or mental health hospitals, addiction and substance abuse treatment centers, or in government facilities, such as jails and prisons.

Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Mental health nurse practitioners focus their practice in more clinical areas, treating issues such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral disorders. They might open their own clinical practices, seeing patients on a regular basis for therapeutic counseling, though they may also prescribe medications when necessary. Mental health nurse practitioners can also work as school counselors or in trauma units, providing therapy for those who have experienced traumatic events such as shootings or car accidents.

Explore the Possibilities with Maryville University

Helping people manage or even resolve their mental health problems is an important professional responsibility that can offer a high degree of job satisfaction. Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners play a vital role in helping individuals in their communities lead happier, more fulfilling lives. Not only are these jobs rewarding, but they are increasingly in demand given the national shortages of mental health providers. Discover how Maryville University’s online psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner programs and Master of Science in Nursing can help you mitigate the mental health professional shortage and step into an important and fulfilling career.


*Note. Clinical hour requirements for state licensure may vary by state. Students are encouraged to visit the Board of Nursing website for the state in which they intend to practice to verify specific requirements. Students may also reach out to our team of enrollment advisors for guidance.


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