Psychiatric Nursing: All Your Questions Answered

Unlike physical ailments which generally have an obvious cause and treatment plan, mental illness can be harder to diagnose and treat. Furthermore, while attitudes are changing, there is still a stigma associated with seeking therapy or treatment. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the critical role a psychiatric nurse plays in mental health settings. We’ll explore where psychiatric nurses work, what types of conditions they treat and much more. Keep reading to learn more about this in demand field.

What is a psychiatric nurse?

A psychiatric nurse, also known as a behavioral health nurse or a mental health nurse, works with patients that are receiving treatment for a variety of mental illnesses. Since mental illness can occur at any point in life, patients range in age from children to the elderly. In addition to treating psychiatric disorders, behavioral health nurses also help patients address the stigma associated with their mental health issue(s). It is a career path that blends psychology, psychiatry and nursing.

Due to the complex nature of their patients’ condition(s), psych nurses work as part of a behavioral health team. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists are just a few of the specialties that behavioral health nurses frequently interact with.

What types of conditions does a psychiatric nurse treat?

A psychiatric nurse works with patients experiencing a wide variety of disorders and mental illnesses. Below are some of the most common disorders that psych nurses encounter:

Addiction Disorders – Addiction disorders are defined as a complex disease of the brain and body that involves the compulsive use of one or more substances (i.e. drugs and/or alcohol). Patients with addiction disorders persist in compulsive behaviors despite serious health and/or social consequences.

Dementia Disorders – Dementia is a general term that is used to describe a loss of memory, language and/or problem-solving abilities. Dementia disorders most frequently occur in geriatric populations. While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, patients may also suffer from vascular, frontotemporal and/or Lewy body dementia.

Eating Disorders – An eating disorder is a serious mental illness in which people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts/emotions. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are the three most common types of eating disorders. Anxiety, panic and obsessive-compulsive disorders typically accompany an eating disorder.

Mood Disorders – Patients with mood disorders experience an emotional state (or mood) that is distorted or inconsistent with their circumstances, impairing their ability to function. They may experience feelings of apathy, worthlessness and sadness or extreme mania. Depression and bipolar disorder are the two most common types of mood disorders.

Psychotic Disorders – Psychotic disorders are a group of serious illnesses that affect the mind. They make it hard for patients to think clearly, make good judgments, respond emotionally, communicate effectively, understand reality and behave appropriately. Two of the main symptoms associated with psychotic disorders are delusions and hallucinations.

What are the typical job duties for a mental health nurse?

Mental health nurses play a critical role in assessing and diagnosing patients. Consequently, much of their work centers around monitoring symptoms and behaviors and providing short- or long-term care. While specific job responsibilities vary by practice setting, some of the most common job duties include:

Gauging a patient’s psychiatric state;

Collaborating on psychiatric intervention plans;

Administering psychotropic and similar medications;

Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests;

Monitoring adherence to non-medical treatment regimens;

Removing potentially harmful or triggering environmental features;

Recording a patient’s health journey and reporting on notable alterations; and

Educating family members about a patient’s condition and care plan.

Where do psychiatric registered nurses work?

Psychiatric registered nurses work wherever mental health services are provided. This means they work in both in-patient and out-patient settings. An in-patient care setting refers to places where a patient is admitted for care and includes places like hospitals, in-patient mental health facilities and state/federal correctional facilities. Out-patient care settings typically include local clinics and home healthcare organizations. It can even include schools that serve individuals with emotional and mental issues.

What education and/or experience does a psychiatric nurse need to have?

To become a psychiatric nurse, an individual must first obtain an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing (BSN). After fulfilling their program’s educational requirements, the individual must take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Two years of work experience as a full-time registered nurse may also be required by an employer before starting work as a psychiatric nurse.

Because the psychiatric field is highly complex, many employers require their clinicians to hold a current Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (RN-BC). This certification is available through the American Nurses Credential Center (ANCC) and is valid for five years. Additional psychiatric nursing certifications that allow clinicians to treat patients with specific disorders, substance abuse matters, etc. are also available through the ANCC.

After working in the field for an extended period, many psych nurses choose to pursue an advanced degree (i.e. Master of Science in Nursing, Doctor of Nursing Practice). While pursuing this level of education requires a substantial investment of time, it allows clinicians to practice in the broadest range of settings. In some states, clinicians with these advanced degrees can operate private practices and prescribe medications.

What skills are needed to succeed as a psychiatric nurse?

To succeed as a psychiatric nurse, a clinician must possess the following skills:

Interpersonal Communication – A substantial portion of a psych nurse’s job is assessing and diagnosing patients. For that reason, psych nurses need to be comfortable and confident initiating conversations with patients and their family members. Furthermore, psych nurses work as part of an interdisciplinary team and they need to effectively communicate with other medical professionals.

Problem-Solving – When it comes to diagnosing and treating mental health issues, the root cause of a patient’s condition may not be immediately obvious. For that reason, behavioral health nurses must be diligent in asking the right questions and looking for cause-and-effect relationships. This helps ensure that the right course of treatment is delivered in a timely and effective manner.

Observation – Patients receiving treatment for mental health issues may, through subtle behavioral changes, give off signs that they intend to hurt themselves or others. Therefore, mental health nurses must be vigilant in watching for and responding to any signs of patient distress.

Reliability – Patients and their family members frequently rely upon registered psychiatric nurses for emotional support. Hence, it is extremely important that their demeanor remain consistent from day to day. The ability to maintain a positive attitude and to consistently provide an exceptional level of care is crucial to patient success.

What is the career outlook for psychiatric nursing?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness (approximately 51.5M people in 2019). Additionally, the Affordable Care Act has ensured that more Americans have access to health insurance and mental health services. Given the current shortage of qualified nurses, there is (and will continue to be) a high demand for behavioral health nurses at all levels in the years to come.

Given the current shortage of qualified nurses, there is (and will continue to be) a high demand for behavioral health nurses at all levels in the years to come.

Why should a mental health nurse partner with a healthcare staffing agency?

There are three main reasons why a mental health nurse should partner with a healthcare staffing agency:

Access to Opportunities – Healthcare staffing agencies have access to psychiatric nursing positions in a variety of practice settings. This means psychiatric nurses will have a better chance of finding a position that meets their interests and requirements when they partner with a healthcare staffing agency.

The Chance to Travel – Due to the growing demand for behavioral health nurses, facilities nationwide are engaging travel nurses to meet their needs. Behavior health nurses that are partnered with a healthcare staffing agency will have the opportunity to take their career on the road.

Dedicated Support – While rewarding, work within the mental health field can be mentally and emotionally tough. Psych nurses that are partnered with a healthcare staffing agency (like Premier Medical Staffing Services, LLC) will have a dedicated recruiter supporting and cheering them on.