Working as a mental health nurse

August 13, 2014

One of our students posing with the nursing staff in Chiang Mai When it comes to nursing, many people may think of treating and caring for patients with physical illnesses and diseases. Emotional and mental health issues are also real and may require nursing care. Mental health nursing, which is sometimes called psychiatric nursing, involves caring for patients with mental health issues and conditions.  

Responsibilities of a mental health nurse

Mental health nurses work with patients of all ages who have a variety of psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and personality disorders. They may also care for people who have dementia, eating disorders and substance abuse problems.  

Similar to other types of nurses, mental health nurses assess and monitor patients, administer medications, process admissions and chart behaviors. Depending on what type of facility a nurse works in, additional responsibilities may include developing and leading therapeutic and recreational activities. Mental health nurses may also conduct groups, such as symptom management skills groups, social skills training groups and family support groups.

Regardless of where a mental health nurse works, education is usually part of the job description. Nurses play a large role in educating patients and their families on their mental health diagnoses and how to manage their illnesses. They may also educate patients on medications they take and their side effects.   

Education and training

If psychiatric nursing is something in which you are interested, your first step is graduating from an accredited registered nursing program. Although some facilities may hire licensed practical nurses, most prefer to hire registered nurses. Registered nursing degree programs may vary from two to four years. Associate degree programs can be earned in two years, while a bachelor’s degree program usually takes four years.

Whether you complete a two- or four-year degree program, you will need to pass the NCLEX exam and become licensed as a registered nurse. Some facilities may hire new nurses just out of school to work as mental health nurses. In other cases, a healthcare facility may want a nurse to have a few years of experience in any area of nursing in order to develop strong patient assessment skills.  

In order to increase your chances of getting a job in the field, you can obtain voluntary certification as a psychiatric mental health nurse. A certification exam is offered through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. 

Working conditions and salary

Working conditions may vary for mental health nurses depending on the type of facilities they work in. For example, nurses who work in mental health clinics may mostly work during the daytime. Nurses who work in psychiatric hospitals may need to work varied hours, including nights and weekends.

Salaries for mental health nurses will depend on the level of education they achieve. Those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree may earn more. Your level of experience and the type of facility you work in also plays a part in earnings. According to the American Psychiatrist Nurses Association, the average salary for mental health nurses is about $87,000 a year. 

Opportunities for mental health nurses 

Mental health nurses may work in acute care hospitals, which have sections designated for patients with psychiatric conditions. More commonly, nurses will find jobs in psychiatric hospitals, mental health clinics or outpatient programs. Correctional facilities may also hire mental health nurses. 

Some mental health nurses decide to work primarily in one of the subspecialties of psychiatric nursing. For instance, adolescent mental health nurses work with teens and young adults with psychiatric problems. Nurses may also choose to specialize in caring for people who have substance abuse problems in addition to mental health diagnoses.

Traits needed to be a successful mental health nurse

If mental health nursing interests you, having certain traits and skills will help you excel in this area of nursing. Some of the most important strengths you can have are strong interpersonal skills.  You will be spending a lot of time talking with patients and possibly family members. Nurses working in mental health facilities need to have good communication skills and work effectively with all types of people.

Another essential trait is the ability to work well as part of a team. As a psychiatric nurse, your responsibilities will include coordinating the patient’s care with other healthcare professionals, such as physicians, counselors, therapists and technicians.

Having a calm demeanor and being able to handle stress well is very important for mental health nurses. It is not uncommon for mental health nurses to deal with difficult patients who may be having psychotic episodes. Being able to handle a chaotic situation in a calm and rational manner is a must. 

Strong assessment skills and good judgment are additional traits you will need. Nurses in psychiatric facilities are continually assessing patients to determine if treatments, such as therapy and medications, are helping. Nurses also need to persistently assess the situation to make sure patients are in a safe environment and be alert to any impending crises.

Advantages and disadvantages

Nurses who work in the field of mental health may have the chance to work in a setting other than an acute care hospital. Opportunities in other settings, such as correctional facilities and outpatient clinics, may be an advantage to some people. 

One of the biggest advantages is being able to help someone deal with a difficult diagnosis and overcome it.  Not all illnesses are obvious by looking at a person, and psychiatric illnesses sometimes carry a stigma. Nurses can play an important part in helping patients cope with their illness and improve how they function.  

There may also be some aspects of mental health nursing some people may see as a negative. Patients with mental health conditions can be difficult to work with at times. They can become angry or aggressive towards other patients and staff, which can be stressful to deal with. Some patients may not improve, which can be upsetting.  It is also not uncommon for patients with psychiatric problems to be non-complaint with their treatment plan, and that can be frustrating. However, if you are patient and pay attention to detail, mental health nursing could be the perfect fit for you!