Charting the Career Path: Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner vs. Psychiatrist

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Some people confuse psychiatrists with other professions, such as psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs). Even though psychiatrists and PMHNPs are both pillars of the mental health field, their responsibilities, roles, and qualifications are distinctly different. Understanding the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner vs. psychiatrist differences and similarities can help future mental health professionals weigh their career options.

A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner meets with a patient

The Role of a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). They primarily care for the mental health and well-being of individuals, but their work may extend to families, groups, and communities. After PMHNPs diagnose a condition, they plan and implement a system of care. They then evaluate the results to look for room for improvement. PMHNPs are equipped to assess an individual’s current mental health and determine the possibility of future mental health concerns. A PMHNP can become registered under the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA), allowing them to offer primary care services to patients.

In addition to seeing patients, PMHNPs may also perform research to grow the field’s body of knowledge or consult with legislators and administrators to improve the state of local mental health facilities. The regulations regarding what a qualified PMHNP can do varies by state.

The Profession of a Psychiatrist

Psychiatry is the branch of medicine that focuses on the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the field of mental health. They are trained to diagnose mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders or conditions based on patients’ psychological and physical traits, as well as their external and internal symptoms. They also discuss these aspects with their patients to develop a complete picture of their mental state before proceeding with treatment.

Psychiatrists are required to have at least a medical degree in biology or psychology and pass state exams before they can practice. Many states require psychiatrists to complete a residency before they are allowed to open a private practice. A psychiatrist may choose to earn board certification by taking a voluntary oral and written examination administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. The certification is valid for 10 years, so psychiatrists must retake the exam every decade to maintain this credential.

Defining the Differences: Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner vs. Psychiatrist

The differences between a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and a psychiatrist are not immediately evident. Both types of professionals work in the mental health field and try to help patients deal with their emotional, mental, or behavioral disorders. However, a few distinct differences exist between them:

  • Degree Requirements: A psychiatrist requires a medical degree to practice and usually needs local state certification, as well as the completion of an internship. PMHNPs, on the other hand, typically earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and have to complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). The Maryville University Master of Science in Nursing Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (MSN PMHNP) is an ideal choice for students intending to take this route.
  • Ability to Prescribe: Until very recently, psychiatrists were the only profession allowed to prescribe medication to mentally ill individuals. In many states, that standard remains. However, over the last decade, 21 states have passed legislation that allows PMHNPs also to prescribe medication for mentally ill individuals.

As the shortage of psychiatrists across the U.S. persists, the role of a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner is expanding, allowing them to assume increasing clinical responsibilities in the treatment of patients.

Duties and Responsibilities of a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse

PMHNP is a multifaceted role. Aside from fulfilling their nursing duties, PMHNPs can also act as researchers, educators, consultants, and advocates. A PMHNP’s responsibilities include:

  • Observing patients’ behavior and developing a baseline for each individual
  • Reviewing patients’ medical history to accurately diagnose mental health disorders
  • Collaborating with other staff to come up with efficient and effective treatment regimens
  • Treating patients using a variety of methodologies, including contemporary and traditional medicine and psychotherapy techniques
  • Developing specific treatment plans for each individual
  • Offering feedback to patients and their families about their state of care and the treatment’s progress.

Additionally, PMHNPs need to be able to provide emotional support to patients and their families. Education is another core competency for this role, as ensuring that both patients and families understand the mental illness and the corresponding treatment prevents them from feeling helpless and encourages patient compliance.

Skills That Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses Should Have

PMHNPs need to have a variety of skills to provide the quality and level of care that patients require from them. For example, they should demonstrate the following skills:

  • Communication: Building rapport with patients and ensuring that both they and their families know how to deal with mental disorders is one of the essential roles of a PMHNP. Communication allows a practitioner to foster these connections.
  • Research: Looking at patient records to determine an individual’s mental health profile is another core competency. Having research skills ensures a PMHNP doesn’t miss the minor details that may help to diagnose a disorder.
  • Pharmacology: In states where PMHNPs can prescribe medicine, the practitioner must know which ones work for which conditions, as well as how to prescribe dosages.
  • Observation: A PMHNP’s observations inform a diagnosis. Knowing what sort of behaviors suggest a specific mental disorder is essential.

Maryville University’s MSN program focuses on helping students develop these core skills in the following courses, among others*:

  • Psychopharmacology and Mental Health Assessment
  • Clinical Inquiry I, II, and III
  • Foundations of Clinical Scholarship
  • Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing

The PMHNP coursework also helps students to grasp the importance of their role as a future mental health professional and what they can do to help their patients cope with or recover from their disorders.

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are in high demand across the United States. According to October 2019 PayScale data, a PMHNP can earn median wages of $107,526 per year, with the top 10% making $137,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also notes that the profession is expanding rapidly. It projects the employment of nurse practitioners in general to increase by 26% between 2018 and 2028, much faster than other jobs in the country. This job growth means more room for new graduates to find employment.

The Importance of Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses

For those interested in a career in the mental health field, becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner is a great option. Their qualification process is different from that of a psychiatrist, but they are no less critical to the field of psychiatry. If you’re interested in joining the field and helping people improve their mental health, check out the Maryville University Master of Science in Nursing Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (MSN PMHNP).

*Note. Clinical hour requirements for state licensure may vary by state. Students are encouraged to visit the Board of Nursing website for the state in which they intend to practice to verify specific requirements. Students may also reach out to our team of enrollment advisors for guidance.

Recommended Reading
The Future of Nursing: Leading Change in the 21st Century

States Granting NP Full Practice Authority

How Mobile Health Tools Are Changing Nursing

American Psychiatric Society, What Is Psychiatry?

APNA, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

Forbes, “How Retail Mental Health Could Be Medicine’s Next Frontier”

National Council Medical Director Institute, “The Psychiatric Shortage: Causes and Solutions”

NCBI, “Expanding the Role of Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners in a State Psychiatric System”

PayScale, Average Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

Psychiatry Online, “Integrating Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners into Psychiatric Practice Settings”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners