How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

Nurses are in high demand, especially in mental health and psychiatric care. Learn how to become a mental health nurse.

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by Emily Gillespie-Lord

Published August 15, 2022

Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

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How to Become a Mental Health Nurse
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Mental health nurses make up the second-largest group of professionals in psychiatric care. And they are in high demand.

They work in different settings to provide life-changing care to patients and their families. This role takes a great deal of compassion and the ability to see patients as whole people who are not defined by their circumstances.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Mental Health Nurse Do?

Mental health nurses provide treatment and care to individuals with mental health disorders.

The higher your level of education, the more responsibilities you typically have. A licensed practical nurse (LPN) can earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and become a registered nurse (RN). Nurses looking for a career change can further their education and gain more patient responsibility.

Psychiatric-mental health advanced practice nurses hold a master's degree or a doctorate. This higher degree allows them to treat patients by prescribing medications and developing a treatment plan.

Mental Health Nurse Responsibilities

  • Provide the basics of mental health nursing, including self-care education to patients and families and the coordination of treatment between patients, doctors, and other teams of medical professionals
  • Conduct patient evaluations, stabilize patients, and provide crisis intervention
  • Assist directly with rehabilitation, intervention, and mental health maintenance
  • Work with patients to identify and achieve their recovery goals in mental health and addiction
  • Administer medications and keep patients safe

Mental Health Nurse Not for You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Mental Health Nurse?

How do you become a licensed mental health nurse? While there are no specific nursing degrees to become a mental health nurse, you can seek out certifications after meeting minimum education requirements. In most instances, an LPN or RN can work immediately after completing their nursing school programs.

Step 1: Earn ADN or BSN

Registered nurses hold an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Nursing students should meet with a career counselor to decide what degree is best for them.

An ADN usually takes two years to complete, while a BSN takes four. A transition between the two can be achieved through online RN-to-BSN programs. Many of these programs cost between $100 and $600 per credit.

Along with important soft skills, BSN programs offer more specialized courses such as emergency care, obstetrics, and psychiatric care. Finishing these programs takes many hours of studying and training in a clinical setting.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) tests nursing students' basic knowledge to ensure they are ready to work in the field. You have five hours to complete the test, which has anywhere from 60-145 questions.

Make sure you study and take practice exams to prepare for the test.

Step 3: Obtain RN Licensure

How do you get licensing as a mental health nurse? The process and cost of licenses and certifications are different in each state. For example, nurses in Alabama pay $100 for their license, while nurses in New York pay $143. Approved licensure can assure healthcare facilities that a nurse is capable of providing care.

Step 4: Get a Job in a Mental Health Setting

You can find a job in mental health as a nurse directly out of nursing school. Many nurses begin their careers as LPNs, providing assistance to doctors and RNs. This allows them to work in the mental health field while continuing their education to become an RN or earn their BSN.

Nurses who work in mental health learn how to help those living with mental health disorders or addiction. Communication is key, as are self-care techniques and education for the patient's family.

As of July 2022, an entry-level mental health RN makes an average salary of $51,000 per year, according to Payscale, while the average salary for all mental health RNs is $68,180 per year.

Step 5: Apply for Mental Health Certification

The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers the psychiatric–mental health nursing board certification to RNs who have been practicing a minimum of two years as a registered nurse. Additionally, RNs seeking this certification must complete 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric care in the three years before.

The certification exam costs $395 for nurses who are not members of the American Nurses Association. You have three hours to complete the 150 test questions to become certified.

Step 6: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

Continuing education (CE) is required to be eligible for some certifications, but it is not always necessary to work in the field. There are many CE options available for mental health and psychiatric nurses, many of which are available online.

In addition to CE, you can earn a master's in nursing. Many master's programs are available online. After earning your master's, you can continue your education and actually earn a patient-facing doctorate in nursing or a more research-based Ph.D in nursing. You can complete both of these degrees online.

What to Know Before Becoming a Mental Health Nurse

The journey to becoming a mental health nurse can be a long one. Along with making sure this path is right for you, it is important to consider the cost and amount of time spent in school and compare it to your potential earnings after you land the job.

Accreditation

First, make sure the nursing program you choose has the proper accreditation. Many online programs are accredited. Without the proper accreditation, you will not be able to transfer your credits to another institution or sit for the NCLEX.

Cost

The average cost of a bachelor's degree is heavily dependent on the program. For example, an ADN can typically cost anywhere from $6,000-$40,000. A master's degree can cost anywhere from $35,000-$60,000.

Also, take into account all of the hidden costs associated with attending college and the true cost. For example, it costs $200 to take the NCLEX. Expenses may also be different when comparing in-person to online courses.

Salary

According to Payscale, a mental health nurse makes an average salary of $68,180 per year, as of July 2022. Nurse practitioners, who usually hold a master's degree or doctorate, make an average annual salary of $113,580, as of July 2022. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports, as of May 2021, that California and Hawaii are the highest-paying states for registered nurses in any area of healthcare.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Mental Health Nurse

What qualifications do you need to become a mental health nurse?

The minimum qualification to become a mental health nurse is to complete the required education to become an LPN and pass the NCLEX-PN or an RN and pass the NCLEX-RN.

On average, it takes one year to complete an LPN program, the minimum education level to work as a nurse in any field. You can build upon your LPN nursing licensure and knowledge to complete an ADN program to become an RN. While not required, you can continue your education with an RN-to-BSN program.

What is the fastest way to become a mental health nurse?

The fastest way to become qualified to work as a mental health nurse is to complete a one-year LPN program and pass the NCLEX-PN. LPNs work under the supervision of an RN and do not have the same responsibilities.

LPN duties include inserting catheters and IVs, monitoring vital signs and symptoms, and assisting patients with daily activities. An LPN is only a licensed position and does not require a degree. You can use your mental health LPN knowledge and training to become an RN.

What qualities do you need to become a mental health nurse?

The qualities you need to become a mental health nurse can serve you well in all other areas of nursing. You need to be patient and understanding and have the ability to remain calm while under pressure. Patients who are experiencing mental health conditions need nurses who are compassionate and can see them as whole and complete humans.

Nurses help to diagnose and treat patients. But they also serve as educators to patients and their families. Communication skills are important, as is analytical thinking.

Can I become a mental health nurse with an online degree?

You can become a mental health nurse with an online degree as long as the program you choose is accredited. Accreditation is not optional. If the program you attend is not accredited, you will not be able to sit for the NCLEX. You need to pass the NCLEX in order to become licensed or registered.

While there are clinical portions of a nursing program that must be done in person, a great deal of coursework can be completed online. Some programs are more flexible, allowing students to listen to recorded lectures, while others have a stricter schedule and due dates.

How much money can I make as a mental health nurse?

The salary you earn as a mental health nurse is dependent on your education level and where you work. The median salary for a typical LPN is $48,070 as of May 2021, according to the BLS.

As of July 2022, mental health RNs earned an average yearly salary of $68,180. Payscale reported nurses with a BSN earned an average annual salary of $89,000, as of July 2022. This does not include any pay raises you may get after completing continuing education and substance misuse nursing certifications.

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