Here you’ll find a complete rundown of RN to MSN PMHNP programs, including admissions requirements, coursework, clinical practicums, and tips about online RN to MSN PMHNP degrees. There’s a “checklist” section on PMHNP certification and another devoted to helpful job advice & salary figures. We also outline the debate between the PMHNP and the FNP, provide links to PMHNP conferences, organizations & resources, and answer your questions about a PMHNP’s prescriptive authority.
Ready to forge ahead? Browse our Directory of RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Programs.
What is a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?
Definition of a PMHNP
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNPs) are APRNs who provide advanced psychiatric care and mental health services to patients of all ages. PMHNPs perform psychiatric assessments & evaluations, diagnose psychiatric disorders & mental illnesses, create & administer plans of care, promote self-care & wellness, and manage medications & labs (this is a biggie!).
- As case managers & patient advocates, PMHNPs often end up coordinating services for folks with complex psychiatric issues.
- As therapists, PMHNPs may be responsible for organizing psychotherapy sessions, counseling clients with chronic psychiatric conditions, and intervening in acute mental health crises (e.g. traumatic events).
- As key members of interdisciplinary healthcare teams, PMHNPs work closely with primary care providers, doctors, social workers, and psychiatrists.
- As nursing specialists, PMHNPs can choose to focus on an area of particular interest (e.g. adolescence, substance abuse, geropsych, PTSD, etc.).
Common healthcare settings for PMHNPs include:
- In-patient psychiatric facilities & hospital practices
- Outpatient community mental health centers (urban & rural)
- Private psychiatric practices
- Domestic violence shelters
- Residential substance abuse facilities
- Home healthcare agencies
- Correctional facilities, prisons & court clinics
- Veterans Administration (VA) psychiatric facilities
- Emergency Departments (EDs)
- School-based programs
In certain workplaces (e.g. private practices, rural hospitals, etc.), PMHNPs may have a great deal of autonomy.
PMHNP & Prescriptive Authority
Prescriptive authority is regulated by state law. Although all State Boards of Nursing allow certified & licensed PMHNPs to prescribe, states have different rules about the scope of practice.
- In some states, you may have full practice authority (i.e. independent prescribing without oversight).
- In other states, you may need to be supervised by a psychiatrist/physician.
Your prescriptive authority will also depend upon your job title. Currently, there are two types of Psychiatric-Mental Health Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (PMH-APRNs) :
- Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP): Before they will grant you a state license, most State Boards of Nursing will want to see that you have PMHNP certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Once you are licensed as an APRN & certified as a PMHNP, you’ll be permitted to prescribe under the terms we’ve outlined above. If you’d like more info on a PMHNP’s scope of practice, the APNA has a helpful State by State Practice Authority Guide for APRNs, available to APNA members.
- Psychiatric-Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist (PMH-CNS): Some State Boards will not allow clinical nurse specialists to prescribe. Other State Boards are willing to grant prescriptive practice to PMH-CNSs who have taken graduate courses in pharmacology, pathophysiology, and physical health assessment and have current ANCC certification. If you’re interested in the prescriptive authority of CNSs, check out the NCSBN’s CNS Independent Prescribing Map.
Keep in mind that the ANCC has publicly stated that it’s moving toward one role for APRNs involved in psychiatry & mental health (i.e. the PMHNP), which means PMH-CNS graduate programs no longer exist. As of 2018, ANCC’s Adult PMH-CNS and Child/Adolescent PMH-CNS credentials were only available for renewal.
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner vs. Other Specialties
PMHNP vs. FNP (Family Nurse Practitioner)
A lot of aspiring nurse practitioners with an interest in mental healthcare run into the same debate—should they opt for the flexible FNP or the focused PMHNP? There’s no “right” answer to this question, but here are some career points to consider:
- PMHNP: PMHNPs may be able to demand a higher salary, especially in areas where there is a shortage of mental health professionals. Thanks to their training, they may also be better equipped to deal with complex psychiatric conditions, which makes them attractive job candidates to psychiatrists and specialist facilities. In certain states, they have a great deal of independence (check with your State Board of Nursing for details).
- FNP: As medical generalists, FNPs will have a wide range of job opportunities—especially in primary care—upon graduation. They tend to see more patients per day than PMHNPs, which makes a difference to a practice’s earnings. From their front-line position, they can be of immediate help to patients who are suffering. And they’re not limited to specific work settings or psychiatric tasks.
Prior experience helps a lot here—try to work in an in-patient psychiatric setting before you make a decision. Examine job descriptions in your dream career to see what certification employers are demanding. Talk to current PMHNPs and read the online discussions (there are many!).
Note: Remember, too, that choosing an RN to MSN FNP program gives you the option to earn a post-master’s certificate or DNP in psychiatry and qualify for national certification (PMHNP-BC) later down the line.
RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Programs
RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health NP: Overview
RN to MSN PMHNP programs are tailor-made for working RNs who have a diploma or an associate’s degree (e.g. ASN/ADN) and want to pursue an MSN or MS to become a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP). There are also RN to MSN PMHNP programs for RNs with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing.
In our directory, you’ll spot:
- Concentration/Track: RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner (NP) programs with a concentration or track in the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner specialty. These are the most popular offering, and you can have your pick of on-campus or online programs.
- Family PMHNP: Programs that have titles such as “Psychiatric Family Nurse Practitioner” or “Family Psychiatric Mental Health NP.” These titles are a hangover from when the ANCC offered a FPMHNP certification. Nowadays, any Family PMHNP curriculum should prepare you for PMHNP certification. If you have concerns, talk to the program coordinator.
- Dual Concentration: RN to MSN programs that allow you to tackle two NP specialties during graduate school. There are dual focus FNP/PMHNP degrees out there (e.g. University of Tennesse, University of Iowa, etc.), but they are rare. And many schools will expect you to have a BSN before you can apply.
- Sub-Specialty: RN to MSN PMHNP programs that give you the chance to focus on a particular area of interest (e.g. Southern Adventist University’s Emphasis in Primary Care—Psychiatric Mental Health).
Because Schools of Nursing like to play to their strengths, you’re going to see a lot of variation in RN to MSN PMHNP programs. Examine the coursework & clinical components carefully to decide if they cover your areas of interest.
RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health NP: Admissions
All RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner programs—regardless of the specialty—tend to share the same prerequisites: a diploma or associate’s degree in nursing (unless you have a bachelor’s in another field), a current RN license, at least one year of RN clinical experience, a baseline undergraduate GPA (usually 2.75-3.0), and letters of professional reference. See our guide to RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner Programs for details.
Above all, try to ensure your previous RN work has prepared you for the realities of psychiatry. For example, the University of North Carolina requires MSN applicants to have completed at least 6 months of full-time work in an acute or community setting dealing with psychiatric illness & substance abuse. You need to go into a PMHNP graduate program with both eyes open.
RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health NP: Undergraduate Phase
Keep in mind that you must earn good grades on prerequisite undergraduate courses (e.g. community-based nursing, health policy, ethics & genomics, applied statistics, etc.) before the university will allow you to tackle the master’s degree. This phase might take anywhere from 6 months-2 years to complete (depending on the school).
Have a look at our guide to RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner Programs for more info.
RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health NP: MSN Curriculum
Once you’ve made it to the graduate level, standard MSN or MS degrees take around 1-3 years to complete. Approximately 70% of the master’s degree is going to involve didactic coursework (i.e. traditional classroom learning). For PMHNP programs, you’ll be taking:
- Foundation Courses: Almost all PMHNP and Family PMHNP programs contain courses in leadership, evidence-based practice, physical/healthcare assessment, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. This set of mandatory subjects is often called the “Nursing Core.” A number of these courses are required for certification.
- Concentration Courses: Schools of Nursing love to include psychopharmacology and psychopathology in a PMHNP concentration. You may also see courses devoted to the mental health of population groups (e.g. children, adolescents, adults & geriatrics) and specific areas of concern (e.g. substance & relationship abuse; group/family therapy; counseling; neuroscience; biological and behavioral components, etc.).
- Electives: In some circumstances, you’ll be able to choose a few electives. But many PMHNP programs have a fixed curriculum and that’s that.
Look for hardcore science coursework, especially when it comes to pharmacology. Psychiatric patients often have co-morbidities that affect their medication regimens (e.g. unexpected side effects and drug interactions) and PMHNPs can be in charge of handling them.
Finally, whatever program you fancy, be sure it meets the education prerequisites & covers the exam topics for PMHNP certification.
RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health NP: MSN Clinical Hours / Practicums
Here’s your chance to dig deep. On top of being required for state licensure & certification, clinical practicums (a.k.a. clinical rotations) are an excellent way to build up your psychiatric nursing skills, establish a reputation for top-notch mental healthcare, and find employment contacts. Programs will often aim to give you 600-800 total hours of direct patient care (i.e. around 30% of the master’s degree).
During your PMHNP clinical work, Schools of Nursing may decide to expose you to:
- Acute & Primary Care Settings: For example, one clinical rotation could focus on caring for acute & chronic psychiatric patients through an in-patient setting. Another rotation might involve primary care work in a community mental health center, ER, or private practice.
- Psychiatric Care of Adults vs. Children: For instance, Georgia State University has two clinical rotations in advanced psychiatric care: one for adults & older adults and one for children. Union University also has separate rotations for the management of acute & chronic mental health disorders: children and adolescents and adult/geriatric populations.
- Therapy Practicums: This clinical rotation frequently covers group & family therapy, as well as individual therapy.
Consider your career goals when you’re looking at clinical hours. For example, if you enjoy caring for families, you might want a PMHNP program that includes plenty of exposure to primary care, therapy, and counseling. If you’d like to work in a hospital-based psychiatry practice or the VA, ask if the School of Nursing can help you arrange practicums in those facilities.
Online RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Programs
Are Online RN to MSN PMHNP Programs Available?
Yes. A modest number of universities in our directory now offer Online RN to MSN Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner degrees. However, we should point out that you’ll find much more variety in Online RN to MSN Family Nurse Practitioner Programs. Feel free to compare the two!
- Undergraduate Phase: Just like an on-campus RN to MSN program, you’ll be required to earn credits in upper-level undergraduate courses before you can proceed to the MS or MSN. These courses are usually offered through distance learning, making it easy to work while you study.
- Graduate Phase: It’s relatively easy to take standard MS or MSN courses online, but remember that you must participate in clinical practicums in order to graduate. You can earn your clinical hours in your own community. On the other hand, you may be expected to find the site and a clinical preceptor who is willing to supervise you.
Another thing to watch out for? Any program that claims it’s 100% online. A number of universities—especially the ones with good reputations—will expect you to visit the campus (at least once) for training and assessment. For example:
- The University of Rochester PMHNP program includes short on-campus residencies with hands-on practice opportunities.
- The University of Mississippi has plenty of online PMHNP courses, but some require intensives that meet on campus two times per semester.
- East Tennessee State University may require PMHNP students to be on campus for certain classes or assessments, including clinical proficiencies & competencies.
We give “two thumbs up” to online programs with on-campus components—the hands-on training and networking opportunities are invaluable—but they will involve extra costs (e.g. travel expenses). Budget for every part of the degree.
Online RN to MSN PMHNP Programs & State Licensure
We’re tempted to stick this caution in BIG, BOLD WRITING! Before you commit to an Online RN to MSN PMHNP program, check with your State Board of Nursing and the program coordinator about APRN state licensure. State Boards have specific rules and regulations regarding clinical learning experiences for students enrolled in distance education programs. Be sure your degree components will meet licensure requirements in your state.
For example, in its Program FAQ section, East Tennessee State University notes that is unable to accept applications from a number of states due to restrictions imposed on distance education programs by the board of education or board of nursing. Those states include Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, and Washington.
You’ll find info about out-of-state applications in the program’s FAQ section or on the university’s State Regulation page. The language can be confusing, so feel free to ask for clarification!
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certification
Overview of PMHNP Certification
The road to becoming a PMHNP begins with the first four steps outlined in How to Become a Nurse Practitioner. Once you have decided to pursue your graduate degree in Psychiatric-Mental Health NP and looked into state licensure requirements (Steps 3 & 4), you can tackle national certification.
Before you can practice as a Psychiatric-Mental Health APRN, most State Nursing Boards will require you to earn the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC) credential from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). This was once known as the Family Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner credential, and you’ll still see active APRNs who have FPMHNP-BC initials after their name.
Solid RN to MSN PMHNP programs will help prepare you for the PMHNP-BC certification exam. Great ones will brag about their pass rates! For instance, Shenandoah University likes to boast that graduates of its PMHNP program have achieve a 100% pass rate over the past three years.
The PMHNP-BC is offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). To gain it, you must:
- Hold a current, active RN license.
- Earn a master’s (e.g. MS or MSN), postgraduate, or doctoral degree (e.g. DNP) from a PMHNP program accredited by the CCNE or ACEN.
- Tackle graduate-level courses in advanced physiology/pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and advanced pharmacology, as well as coursework in health promotion/maintenance, differential diagnosis, and disease management (including the use and prescription of pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions).
- Complete a minimum of 500 faculty-supervised clinical hours during your PMHNP program, including clinical training in at least two psychotherapeutic treatment modalities.
- Take & pass the national PMHNP-BC exam.
- Keep your certification & licensure up-to-date through continuing education. The certification period lasts 5 years.
Sub-Specialty PMHNP Certifications
Are you planning to work with addicts? The Addictions Nursing Certification Board (ANCB) offers a CARN-AP credential that is worth considering. To gain it, you must:
- Hold a current, active RN license.
- Earn a master’s degree (or higher) in nursing.
- Complete a minimum of 500 supervised, direct client contact hours in advanced clinical practice. These hours must involve working with individuals and families impacted by addictions/dual diagnoses. Only hours earned within the last four years will be considered; you can use your master’s degree clinical practicums.
- Complete a minimum of 1,500 hours of nursing experience in addiction as an Advanced Practice Nurse (APN) within the last three years.
- Complete 45 contact hours of approved continuing education in addictions within the last three years. 51% of the hours must be specific to addictions nursing; the remaining hours must be related to addictions nursing (e.g. HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, pain management, etc.)
- Pass the CARN-AP exam.
- Keep your certification & licensure up-to-date through continuing education.
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Jobs
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Careers
As you can see from the list of common work settings, PMHNPs have a range of opportunities in primary care & acute care. The employment market isn’t vast for new grads, but with the right attack, you can emerge from your program with a job-in-hand. The trick is to plan ahead:
- Career Planning: Look for Schools of Nursing that offer career counseling, professional & career development workshops, and job fairs. Do they post PMHNP job openings on their website? Do they have local partnerships with major healthcare providers (e.g. hospitals, outpatient clinics, psychiatric facilities, etc.)? Can they connect you to potential employers through clinical rotations?
- Alumni Opinions: Ask the program coordinator about the alumni employment rate. Then get in touch with some of those alumni through LinkedIn to see how they’re doing. How hard was it for them to find a job? Did the PMHNP coursework & clinical hours prepare them for the real world?
- Bonus Clinical Experience: Try to fit in as much psychiatric & mental health work experience as you can—before you enroll in the program and while you’re studying. The clinical rotations are helpful, but you’ll really stand out if you’ve got some street smarts (e.g. caring for complex patients, working with acute psychiatric cases, helping adolescents with mental health issues, etc.). It’s one of the reasons some RNs continue to work part-time while they study.
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Job Openings
- AANP Job Center: Filter by job setting (i.e. Psychiatric-Mental Health) for the best results.
- APNA Career Center: Job postings for PMH nurses.
- Indeed: Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Jobs; PMHNP Jobs; PMHNP Psych Nurse Practitioner Jobs.
- Glassdoor: Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Jobs; Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Jobs.
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Salaries
For salary estimates, start with Glassdoor’s pages on Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Salaries & Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Salaries, Indeed’s page on Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Salaries, and Payscale’s page on Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Salaries. In 2018, average salaries ranged from $98,000-$130,000.
You can compare these numbers with the AANP National NP Compensation Survey (free for AANP members) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which provides annual occupational statistics for Nurse Practitioners. The BLS posts wage & salary figures for specialty hospitals, but unfortunately that category excludes specialty psychiatric and substance abuse. However, if you’re interested in primary care work settings:
- In 2017, the average mean wage for NPs in Outpatient Care Centers was $111,690 ($53.70 per hour).
- In 2017, he average mean wage for NPs in Offices of Physicians was $105,730 ($50.83 per hour).
Generally speaking, the PMHNP is one of the best paid NP specialties (NNP is the other), but geography plays a large part in the equation. For example:
- Hospitals and outpatient practices in areas with few PMHNPs may be more than happy to pay big numbers to new grads.
- But cities and metro areas with a glut of PMHNPs can be much less generous; they may also want to see candidates with a few years of experience.
Though they don’t distinguish by specialty, BLS’s national NP maps will show you states & metro areas with the highest level of employment and the best wages for nurse practitioners. Keep in mind that the cost of living in urban areas will be higher, too.
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Resources
PMHNP Certification Bodies
PMHNP Professional Associations
- American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
- American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA)
- International Nurses Society on Addictions (IntNSA)
- International Society for Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses (ISPN)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
PMHNP Conferences & Events
- APNA Annual Conference
- APNA 16th Annual Clinical Psychopharmacology Institute (CPI)
- ISPN Annual Conference
- NAMI National Convention
- Neuroscience Education Institute (NEI) Psychopharmacology Conference
- Journal for Nurse Practitioners
- Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (JAANP)
- Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing
PMHNP Useful Resources
- APNA Career Center
- APNA Resource Center
- International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression
- Mental Health Associations
- NIH: National Institute on Drug Abuse
- Office of National Drug Control Policy
- State by State Practice Authority Guide for APRNs (Available to APNA Members)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)