How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

Submitted by Jay Borenstein on Thu, 12/07/2023 - 16:26
a mental health nurse consulting with her patient

Mental health nursing is a vital and valuable specialty for nurses. Statistics show an urgent need for qualified professionals to step into this field. 

According to recent survey data regarding access to mental health care, there are approximately 350 individuals in the United States for every mental health provider. Mental Health America reported that as of June 2022, over 150 million people were living in a mental health workforce shortage area, and only 28% of the mental health need in these shortage areas was being met by a mental health provider. 

If you want to transition your current career into nursing and are wondering how to become a mental health nurse, this blog is for you. We will explore the job outlook, work responsibilities, and educational pathway forward to becoming a mental health nurse.


Responsibilities of Mental Health Nurses

Mental health nurses are trained to provide competent patient care for patients experiencing mental concerns, and their families. They are registered nurses (RNs) with specialty preparation and are eligible to apply for psychiatric mental health nurse certification

The general responsibilities of the mental health nurse include:

  • Assessment of psychiatric symptoms and coping strategies
  • Counseling on psychiatric-related pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic therapies
  • Advocacy for patient mental health needs and referral to community resources
  • Active listening and utilization of therapeutic communication skills
  • Performing individual and group therapy sessions
  • Maintenance of professional boundaries while providing compassionate care

Mental health nursing is a career requiring passion for the work. Engaging with complex mental health issues can be emotionally complex. A desire to make a difference in the lives of those struggling with mental health conditions helps sustain and energize nurses to rise and step into this calling. 


Career Outlook for Mental Health Nurses

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics provides salary and job outlook statistics for registered nurses. Below are some quick facts about the RN role:

  • The median salary for RNs in 2021 was $77,600 per year
  • A bachelor’s degree is the typical and preferred entry-level RN education
  • The job outlook is expected to increase by 6% from 2021-2031
  • An additional 195,400 RN jobs are expected from 2021-2031


Work Settings for Mental Health Nurses

There is diversity in work locations for mental health nurses. With a mental health nursing degree, you may find yourself employed in:

  • Inpatient general and psychiatric hospitals
  • Family practice and psychiatric specialty outpatient clinics
  • Assisted living and long-term care centers
  • Substance abuse and rehabilitation clinics
  • Correctional facilities
  • Colleges and universities

Next, let’s explore more specific examples of situations that mental health nurses address in their regular practice environments. An essential factor to consider when determining if mental health nursing is right for you is the level of interest and desire to help others with mental health issues such as the scenarios described below. 


Is Becoming a Mental Health Nurse Right for You?

A mental health nurse is empathetic and goal-oriented, able to patiently care for patients and families in a context of improvements and challenges. As a mental health nurse, you will:

  • Assess psychiatric dysfunction
  • Assist patients in reducing further psychiatric disability
  • Monitor progress
  • Promote self-care activities
  • Act as a case manager in coordinating interdisciplinary care
  • Help with crisis management
  • Educate the patient and family on mental health issues

A mental health nurse celebrates successes and is a professional, supportive presence during the challenges of psychiatric conditions. The ability to support and navigate patients and clients through the realities of their daily lives will help make this a meaningful, fulfilling career.

As you consider the specific responsibilities of mental health nursing care, you may feel that this is an excellent fit for your future. If so, read on to learn how to become a registered nurse in this specialty area. 


How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

The first step to becoming a mental health nurse is to become a registered nurse. A few academic routes are available to prepare you for a nursing career. 

You could become an RN through an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) program, which typically is completed in under two years. This is a relatively quick route to becoming an RN for someone with no previous college experience., However, obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is employers' preferred education for RNs.

If you currently hold a bachelor’s degree in any non-nursing field, you can use that education as a prerequisite for enrollment in an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program. Substantially shorter than a traditional 4-year BSN, the ABSN program will have you finished with your BSN degree in a little over a year. 

Additional benefits of an online ABSN program include:

  • Online coursework instead of in-person didactic classes
  • Dedicated clinical placement support services
  • Networking opportunities with local and remote colleagues
  • Flexibility to complete assignments virtually with asynchronous classes
  • Hands-on clinical and nursing skill training to boost your confidence

An ABSN program may be right for you if you want to enter the nursing profession efficiently with a high-quality education.


Licensing and Employment in Mental Health Nursing

Once you graduate from an ABSN program, you must pass the national licensure examination (NCLEX) and apply for licensure as an RN. Each state has a specific licensure process outlined by the state board of nursing or other applicable regulatory agency with a nurse practice act that outlines the scope of practice for RNs within the state.

To become a mental health nurse, you must become licensed as an RN and typically work as an RN for at least a year before moving into the specialty. You may even choose to pursue graduate education and become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. For these reasons, the efficient ABSN route is an excellent path forward to achieve your goals in the most timely manner possible.


Step Into Your Future as a Mental Health Nurse

Take the first step toward becoming a mental health nurse today. To help you find your perfect fit, we’ve compiled a list of high-quality, accredited online ABSN programs. Simply enter your Zip code below to find which program(s) are available in your area.