Role of the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Provider

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Psychiatric nurse practitioners diagnose and treat patients with psychiatric disorders.


Psychiatric mental health nursing is an advanced specialty in which nurses work to assess the mental health needs of individuals, families, or groups. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) earn advanced degrees and practice as nurse practitioners or clinical nurse specialists. According to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA), the role of psychiatric nurse practitioners, to diagnose and treat patients with psychiatric disorders, is critically needed given the rise in demand for mental health services and the growing shortage of psychiatric health professionals.

Today, more than 56 million Americans experience mental illness or struggle with substance use disorders, according to the APNA. Of that number, fewer than half of adults receive the care they need. For children, only one in five receives the appropriate care. A strong APRN workforce can help meet the increasing demand for mental health services.

The American Psychiatric Nurses Association outlines the necessary advanced training needed to successfully practice in the role of psychiatric nurse practitioner. “The PMH-APRN role is an advanced nursing role requiring extensive education in development, physical and mental health assessment, the diagnosis of mental health conditions, integration and implementation of care, psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, practice evaluation, consultation, and liaison. To utilize these skills in practice it is necessary to obtain the appropriate educational degree.”

Ohio University’s online MSN program offers master’s in nursing options designed to prepare students for advanced careers such as psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs).

The Need

The demand for psychiatric services is going up at the same time that access to care is shrinking.

“With projected gaps in the psychiatrist workforce needed to meet demand expected to widen, other professionals will play an increasingly critical role in ensuring great access to psychiatric prescribing,” the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH) says.

NCBH indicates that there must be intentionality around meeting this need, with an emphasis on nurse practitioners with advanced training. “The strategy for expanding the psychiatric workforce must have two parts: increasing the number, distribution, and population served by psychiatrists and expanding use of nurse practitioners … with specialty training in psychiatry,” the organization notes.

The PMHNP has been identified as one of the MSN nursing careers that can help meet this growing demand and is “a welcome addition to the workforce that serves people with behavioral health conditions,” according to the NCBH.

“Their presence strengthens the team approach, adds another voice to the multidisciplinary team, and allows more delegation by the psychiatrist to encourage clinicians to practice to the fullest extent of their training and scope, freeing up the psychiatrist for professional endeavors on the clinical team. These professionals work collaboratively at the state and national level, coming together to advocate for mental health parity, reduction of stigma, and more creative methods of integrating primary and behavioral health care. At the same time, each of these professionals ensures high-quality licensing and credentialing standards to safeguard the public trust.”

The Work

The role of the psychiatric nurse practitioner includes screening, diagnosing, and providing care for people facing mental health and substance use disorders, and working with primary care physicians and other health care professionals to coordinate care.

The PMH nurse makes a diagnosis and collaborates with the patient and the healthcare team to develop a plan of care and evaluates it for effectiveness through follow up. PHMNPs may also determine whether hospitalization or outpatient care is needed or recommend individual or group psychotherapy. They are also trained in crisis management, psychotherapy, and prescribing of medications. Additionally, they are a resource in providing education to patients, families, caregivers, and communities.

The Patients

PMHNPs treat a variety of patients, including teenagers and adults experiencing a mental health crisis or children who have been exposed to traumatic events. They may also treat older adults struggling with Alzheimer’s or dementia as well as soldiers returning from combat who may struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People confronting anxiety, depression, or suicide or those struggling with opioid, alcohol, or other substance abuse can also be diagnosed and treated by a PMHNP.

The Settings

A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner may work in all areas of medicine.  According to the APNA, workplaces may include private practice in family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology.

“Psychiatrists are not now, and never will be, the clinicians doing the majority of diagnosis and treatment of mental health and SUDs,” according to the National Council for Behavioral Health. “Primary care providers have historically been the front line for diagnosis and initial treatment of behavioral health conditions.”

This reality illustrates that PMHNPs are valuable not only in acute care settings such as hospitals, but also in prisons, schools, home health care, hospitals, and outpatient treatment centers.

The PMHNP role has evolved in the past decades to fit a niche in mental health care. As advanced nurse practitioners, PMHNPs can see patients, devise and perform treatment plans, prescribe medications, and play a crucial role in the mental health provider shortage.

“Psychiatric mental health nurses work at the forefront of our nation’s most urgent health challenges,” the APNA says. “They understand that whole health begins with mental health and work to shatter the myths and stereotypes associated with this vital area of health care.”

About the Ohio University Online Master of Science in Nursing Program

Ohio University’s online MSN program prepares registered nurses and other Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduates for advanced careers as FNPs or PMHNPs, many of whom may go on to open their own practice.

For more information about Ohio University’s online MSN program, visit the program webpage today.

Recommended Reading:

Difference Between Family Nurse Practitioners and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

MSN vs. FNP: Opportunities in Advanced Nursing Practice

Choosing Your Path: Why Be a Nurse Practitioner?


Mental health statistics: APNA

The Psychiatric Shortage: Causes and Solutions: The National Council for Behavioral Health

PMH Nurses Pivotal to Care: APNA

Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse: APNA