How To Pursue a Career as a Mental Health Nurse

Updated June 30, 2023

Working as a mental health nurse is a challenging and rewarding career for anyone interested in promoting mental wellness. Mental health nurses use their skills to help and support those who are struggling with mental illnesses or disorders.

If you want to work in the healthcare industry and are interested in helping others with their mental health, this profession could be a good fit for you. In this article, we will discuss how to become a mental health nurse, their job description and average salary.

Key takeaways:

  • A mental health nurse treats patients suffering from psychiatric conditions by managing therapeutic environments, educating families and collaborating with other health care providers.

  • Becoming a mental health nurse requires a degree in nursing, training in a psychiatric care setting and licensure.

  • Additional certification may be necessary if a mental health nurse wants to specialize in a specific demographic or type of psychiatric condition.

What does a mental health nurse do?

Mental health nurses work with a team of psychiatric professionals to provide quality healthcare services to patients suffering from mental health issues and disorders. Mental health nurses aid in diagnosing and treating a variety of psychiatric conditions including depression, anxiety and dementia. Mental health nurses may also handle patients suffering from mental trauma due to abuse or physical injuries.

A mental health nurse's specific duties often involve:

  • Assessing a patient's mental health status and their needs

  • Working with the rest of the staff to create treatment plans

  • Guiding patients through coping exercises and prescribed therapies

  • Managing and supervising a therapeutic environment

  • Aiding patients in self-care and hygiene activities

  • Providing counseling and direct treatment if qualified

Read more: Browse Mental Health Nurse Jobs

Average salary

A mental health nurse's salary will vary depending on their level of education, their geographic location and their amount of experience.

Common salary in the U.S.: $1,608 per week

Some salaries range from $800 to $2,500 per week.

Read more: 12 Healthcare Jobs That Pay Well

Mental health nurse requirements

Mental health nurses must meet specific educational and certification requirements to be qualified to practice in the United States. They also might receive additional training specific to an employer.

  • Education

  • Training

  • Certifications

  • Skills


There are several routes that a mental health nurse's education can take. Options for recommended degrees include:

Associate degree

A two-year associate degree is occasionally the minimum requirement for a position as a mental health nurse. However, most nurses choose to go on to receive graduate degrees which would require a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing.

A direct bridge from an associate's degree to a BSN degree may be available from some institutions, and some medical facilities may hire mental health nurses with associate degrees if they have sufficient training and certification.

Undergraduate degree

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree is the most common type of education for a psychiatric nursing career. It is the minimum requirement to find a job as a registered nurse, which can transition into a career as a mental health nurse after the individual gains the necessary training and license.

Courses in an undergraduate nursing program include anatomy, mental health studies, psychology and chemistry. Typically, BSNs are four-year degrees offered by a university.

Graduate degree

A Master of Science in Nursing, Master of Psychiatric Health or a Master of Mental Health degree can be of significant benefit to someone pursuing a career as a mental health nurse.

Graduate-level degrees allow mental health nurses to practice more independently in their field and offer higher average pay. These programs require one to two additional years of study following graduation from a bachelor's degree program.


Highly motivated individuals might pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) with a specialization in mental health. This usually requires an additional year of study and students must complete a research project, publish related documentation and achieve recognition within the psychiatric world to qualify for graduation.

Related: 25 Mental Health Careers Without a Degree


Individuals primarily gain the training they need to succeed as mental health nurses while earning their degrees. Nursing programs include practical labs that allow students to gain hands-on experience while still in school. Some students may also be able to complete on-site internships or participate in job shadowing opportunities which will introduce them to working in a healthcare environment.

Mental health nurses are specifically trained to provide psychiatric care. They may take elective courses as a part of their bachelor's degree or choose to get a graduate degree in mental health, both of which offer in-depth courses that cover topics like psychological therapy, conducting treatments, administering psychiatric medicines and handling patients with behavioral challenges.


Certification is a necessary step in becoming a mental health nurse in the United States. To work as a registered nurse, individuals must be certified by their state's board of nursing. To be certified, they must pass the NCLEX-RN examination.

The NCLEX-RN is a national licensure examination that is required throughout the country. It consists of between 75 and 256 questions, depending on the test taker's performance. To take the examination, a nurse must:

  • Register with a nursing regulatory body (NRB)

  • Register and pay the exam fee

  • Receive Authorization to Test from Pearson VUE

  • Schedule an exam date

Some states may also require additional certification if a mental health nurse wishes to specialize in a certain branch of mental health care, such as pediatrics. To achieve certification and licensure, a mental health nurse is judged on their ability to keep patients safe, their psychological state and their integrity as a health care provider.

Read more: Learn About Being a Registered Nurse


Several professional skills are beneficial to mental health nurses. These include:

Communication skills

Mental health nurses are required to speak directly with both patients and doctors to provide quality care. They must be able to explain instructions clearly, provide information to the doctor quickly and keep accurate medical records. Mental health nurses will also need to be tactful and considerate when speaking to patients so that they can maintain positive and productive nurse/patient relationships.

Technical skills

Mental health nurses are well-educated in psychiatric therapy, mental health medicines and the proper use of medical equipment. Mental health nurses use their technical expertise to assist in diagnoses, supervise therapeutic activities and keep records of a patient's progress.

They also distribute medications as prescribed by a doctor. The technical knowledge they need to succeed is acquired first in nursing school and then from years of practical experience.

Observation skills

An important part of a mental health nurse's job is observing patients and their progress. A mental health nurse should be able to pay careful attention to patients' behaviors, words and emotions.

Frequently, small changes in a patient's attitude or actions can be symptoms of a more serious problem, so attention to detail is crucial for mental health nurses. After observing their patients, they can use the information they gather to find out how to treat the patient most effectively.

Problem solving

Mental health nurses, like most medical professionals, spend much of their time examining their patients' symptoms to help provide accurate diagnoses. Mental health nurses should be able to use their knowledge and experience to aid in finding solutions to problems presented in their workplace. Creative and logical problem-solving skills are both beneficial for mental health nurses.


Caring for those suffering from mental illness or trauma requires patience, compassion and empathy. If a patient feels like their nurse understands them and respects them, they are more likely to trust the nurse and to cooperate with their treatment. Mental health nurses show their empathy by listening attentively, offering words of comfort and providing support to both patients and their families while treatment is ongoing.

Read more: Hard Skill vs. Soft Skills

Mental health nurse work environment

Mental health nurses work in a variety of health care environments, including hospitals, retirement homes, private practices and mental health facilities. Mental health nurses usually work with teams of other health care providers, including doctors, therapists and other nurses.

Mental health nurses may spend long hours on their feet, making rounds in a hospital mental ward. They also frequently interact with patients' families to keep them updated on their loved one's progress.

If they work in an emergency care facility, mental health nurses may encounter new patients every day, while in a clinic or private practice, they may care for the same patients regularly. Mental health nurses often build rapport with longstanding patients and find their work-based relationships rewarding.

Related: How To Balance a Fast-Paced Workplace

How to become a mental health nurse

Here are the most common steps one can follow to become a mental health nurse:

1. Earn a degree

The first step in becoming a mental health nurse is to earn a degree in nursing. This can be an associate's degree, a BSN or a graduate degree.

2. Become certified and licensed

Mental health nurses must take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become certified registered nurses. After becoming certified, they can then pursue additional mental health certifications, if they so choose. To practice, mental health nurses must also be licensed in their state of residency.

Related: 6 Mental Health Career Fields and Jobs To Consider

3. Choose a specialty

To practice as a mental health professional, registered nurses must declare their intentions to work in the mental health field. They may do so by specializing in mental health while still in nursing school or by pursuing specific mental health certifications.

4. Apply to positions

After a nurse is certified and licensed, they may begin seeking a job in their chosen field. To be an attractive job candidate, mental health nurses will need to have a relevant skill set and some practical experience in nursing, as well as recommendations from former professors or employers.

Related: How To Earn Your Psychiatric Nurse Certification

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