Mental Health Nurse Jobs: 3 Specialties to Consider

Mental health nurse jobs pay well, are in high demand, and offer room for career growth. Here are three mental health nurse specialties to consider.

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by Sharon Wilfong

Published August 23, 2022

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

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Mental Health Nurse Jobs: 3 Specialties to Consider
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Mental health nurse jobs are challenging and rewarding for people who want to help others. These positions require excellent communication skills, patience, empathy, and commitment to continuous education.

Mental health nurses work in hospitals, schools, medical clinics, and with specific populations such as veterans. These careers typically take years to build, and the opportunities and salaries advance with education and experience. A career counselor can help you explore mental health nurse specialties and entry-level jobs.

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Ready to start your journey?

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

If you're wondering how to get a mental health nurse license, it starts with a two-year or four-year degree. Most mental health nurse jobs require a two-year degree at minimum.

However, a larger percentage of mental health nurses hold a bachelor's degree in nursing, psychology, or nursing science. Many mental health nurse jobs, such as clinical and advanced practice nurses, require a master's degree or above.

The main steps to building a career as a mental health nurse include:

Mental health nursing specialties range from addiction medicine, veterans' mental health, child and adolescent to geriatric and psychosomatic medicine. Here are three types of mental health nursing specialties with varying educational, work experience, and certification requirements.

3 Types of Mental Health Nursing Specialities

Behavioral Health Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $48,070
  • Job Outlook, 2020-30: 9%
  • Licenses/Certifications: NCLEX-PN

LPNs and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) administer basic medical care in various settings, including residential care facilities and hospitals. They need stamina, compassion, and excellent listening skills.

Behavioral health LPNs work with psychiatric RNs, psychologists, and psychiatrists to provide nursing care to clients with behavioral health issues. LPNs and LVNs participate in treatment planning, may administer medication, and also chart treatment interventions.

They're patient advocates during clinical care and help maintain patient health by monitoring conditions affecting patient care and treatment. Mental health nurse jobs require day, evening, and night shifts, and flexibility is essential to meet patients' needs.

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

  • Average Annual Salary (July 2022): $94,660
  • Job Outlook, 2020-30: 9%
  • Licenses/Certifications: Psychiatric Mental Health Advanced Practice RN (PMH-APRN), Psychiatric Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist (PMH-CNS)

Clinical nurse specialists are a type of advanced practice RN who helps patients experiencing mental health conditions and/or substance misuse disorders. They have specialized graduate-level education and experience that enables them to provide psychiatric and substance use assessments and diagnoses.

PMH-CNSs play a critical role in caring for patients with mental health and/or substance use disorders. These clinical nurse specialists typically focus on specific populations, settings, or types of mental health issues.

Clinical nurse specialists can write treatment plans, including prescriptions for medications, and provide psychotherapy. Additionally, they collaborate with other nurses and medical professionals and often serve in leadership roles.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

PMHNPs assess, diagnose, and treat patients with mental health conditions. They can provide therapy, order laboratory tests, and prescribe medications for patients with mental health conditions or substance use disorder.

PMHNPs often work independently, serving as primary or specialty care providers in psychiatric and mental health. Many nurse practitioners work in physicians' offices, hospitals, and other facilities requiring round-the-clock patient care.

This work can be physically and emotionally challenging. PMHNPs need to be able to communicate with patients and other healthcare professionals.

Critical thinking skills and compassion are also essential to assess a patient's mental health changes and quickly determine what to do.

Mental Health Nursing Salary

A mental health nurse salary can range from around $50,000 to well over $100,000 annually. It depends on your experience, education, licensing, and certifications.

For example, a behavioral health LPN is an entry-level position requiring NCLEX-PN licensure. In contrast, a PMHNP usually has a master's degree or doctorate and additional certifications.

How to Find a Mental Health Nursing Job

Landing a job after college might seem intimidating, especially if you're starting your career in mental health nursing. It helps to be proactive, consider your career plans while in school, and connect with other mental health professionals.

Here are some proactive ways to begin your job search:

Many schools offer remote career services such as feedback on your LinkedIn profile and other professional online profiles. Additionally, the best job search sites like Indeed allow you to upload your resume and set a job alert.

Plus, various professional organizations provide comprehensive resources and supportive communities. These organizations offer opportunities to network, connect with professionals in your field, and find jobs.

Mental Health Nursing Professional Organizations

American Psychiatric Nurses Association: APNA provides education and resources for psychiatric nurses at all levels. Members work in settings including public health institutions and private practice.

National Association of Psychiatry-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners: NAPMHNP is a national network that provides professional development and advocacy in mental health care.

American Association of Nurse Practitioners: AANP has a professional community of over 121,000 members. Its membership benefits include a comprehensive library for nurse practitioners of all specialties.

International Society of Psychiatry-Mental Health Nurses: ISPN offers memberships to students and professionals. Working mental health nurses can serve on committees and can hold office.

Frequently Asked Questions About Mental Health Nursing Jobs

What is the highest paid mental health nurse job?

Out of all the mental health nurse specialties, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners make the most money. What's more, at a median salary of $120,680 per year, they're some of the highest-paid nurses in healthcare.

Not only that but some states and employers pay significantly higher salaries. According to Indeed, the average salary for PMHNPs in California is $184,957 as of July 2022, indicating they make 29% more than the national average.

Similarly, PMHNPs in Washington State earn $171,492 per year, according to Indeed data retrieved in July 2022. Additionally, the 120 salaries reported from Medical Search International indicated these professionals make $286,609 per year.

What mental health nursing specialty is the most popular?

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) and PMH-RNs are the second largest group of behavioral health professionals in the United States. Professionals in these mental health nurse specialties can provide comprehensive care to individuals and their families.

Around 4,500 PMH-CNSs work in the United States in areas such as mental health and substance use disorders. And there's a growing need for substance use, behavioral disorder, and mental health nurses.

APRNs often collaborate with addiction counselors and help treat individuals with substance use disorders, gambling, food, and internet addictions. Psychiatric-mental health nursing requires years of education and experience to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders.

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

Online mental health nurse schools offer flexibility, and you can finish most coursework without going to campus. However, there are clinical requirements whether you're pursuing an associate degree in nursing (ADN), a bachelor's degree, or a master's degree.

State nursing boards require a specific number of clinical hours and successfully passing the state board exam to become an RN or APRN. Clinical requirements are essential to nursing training because you practice hands-on skills and gain experience working with patients.

The combination of academics, clinical hours, and experience working with patients prepare you for the board exam. Still, an online program can be a viable way to start a career in mental health nursing.

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

According to the BLS, a mental health nurse's salary can range from around $50,000 as an LPN to over $100,000 as a PMHNP annually. Mental health nursing careers offer much room for growth and continuing education.

In fact, the amount of money you make is directly proportional to your education, experience, and certifications. For example, you could get an entry-level position with NCLEX-PN licensure and work while you pursue an advanced degree.

You'll need more education to achieve one of the highest paying jobs as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. The highest-paid mental health nurses have a master's degree or doctorate, years of experience, and additional certifications.

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

Mental health nurses need their RN license. The fastest way to qualify for the NCLEX-RN is by completing an associate degree in nursing.

While this two-year degree may help you get an entry-level position, you will need more education to advance your career. You'll need a secondary license or certification to pursue one of the mental health nurse specialties.

For example, the PMH-APRN certification validates your expertise as a psychiatric-mental health nurse, and you need to pursue continuous education. Additionally, PMH-NPs and PMH-CNSs require a master's degree or a doctorate and clinical knowledge beyond the requirements for registered nurses.

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