One of the beautiful things about starting down the path towards advanced practice nursing is that there are so many different ways to apply your skills and passions towards directly helping people in need. While many nurses work in hospitals, treating and healing those with physical ailments, Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners, who are also referred to as Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNP), work with patients who need mental health treatment. Becoming a Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner requires similar levels of education and even involves many of the same tasks that might fall to other nurse practitioners, but working with mental health patients comes with its own distinct set of challenges. It is by no means an easy profession to pursue, but those that are dedicated can find tremendous rewards in the field.
Although the official credential for this type of nurse has removed the word “family” from its title, it still refers to a nurse that works across the lifespan. This means that a PMHNP has the training to work with patients ranging from pediatric to geriatric and all people in between. The patient population for a Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner will depend largely on the type of clinical environment he or she seeks out. For instance, working in a mental health unit at a hospital may expose a nurse largely to adult patients suffering from acute mental health episodes, while working at a mental health-specific treatment center may involve more management of chronic mental health conditions. Over the course of a long career, this type of nurse may find him or herself working with all types of patients, depending on where his or her career leads.
Because psychiatric conditions are often comorbid with physical ailments, there are many different clinical environments where a Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner may find a place. Many hospitals have dedicated mental health units that employ psychiatric nurses, but a PMHNP may also find work in a fully dedicated psychiatric hospital. Some Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners may also choose to work in independent practice, which like other types of nurse practitioners, may find them splitting their time between nursing homes, physicians offices, and on-call duties at local hospitals. Because there are so many opportunities for psychiatric nurses, anyone who has the desire can likely find an opportunity that suits the hours they wish to work as well as the patient population that they prefer.
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners are able to prescribe medications in most states. At the same time, many mental health patients take a variety of medications for both their psychiatric and physical well-being. This means that for many nurses, medication management is a large part of what they do with their psychiatric patients. At a busy hospital that may not have a lot of dedication psychiatric staff, PMHNPs may have little time with each patient and spend that time ensuring that his or her medication is accomplishing its intended job and that whatever side effects it may have are also manageable. While counseling and therapy can be a part of what Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners do, those activities are more often left to psychologists and social workers. Finally, it is important to understand that although mental health assessment is key to work as a psychiatric nurse, physical assessment is also a part of the mental health intake process.
Like so many other parts of a day in the life of a Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, the physical requirements of the job depend on the clinical setting in which that nurse practices. An inpatient clinic with a large patient population may include many coherent and genuine patients as well as those that are violent and unpredictable. All PMHNP’s should seek out a position in which they feel safe, where the protection of staff is as important as the treatment of patients.
Mental illness and psychiatric conditions can take many forms. A Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner that largely works with an outpatient community may spend more time with coherent people who truly wish to seek help. However, inpatient facilities will often have a mix of those patients that have sought treatment and those that have been forcibly committed by family or law enforcement. Some Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners, as well as other mental health workers, have acknowledged the difficulty in working with patients who have not sought treatment for themselves and who may, indeed, not want to be treated. It can be emotionally exhausting to try to help someone who does not want your help, which is certainly worth considering when exploring different nursing career paths. At the same time, being a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner can be extremely rewarding because in many settings you can quickly see the changes and growth in your patients that you have facilitated.
In order to become a Family Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, an advanced practice nurse must obtain the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner credential from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). The nurse must also meet all requirements for nurse practitioners in the state where he or she chooses to practice, including an advanced nursing degree of at least a master’s level. A degree that is specifically targeted to mental health care is not required in order to take the credentialing exam, but advanced training and experience is highly recommended.
Becoming a member of professional organizations dedicated to psychiatric nursing can provide important support for those who pursue this challenging line of work. There are a number of organizations that may be relevant here, starting with the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA), which is “the largest professional membership organization committed to the specialty practice of psychiatric-mental health (PMH) nursing and wellness promotion.” PMHNP’s should also consider membership in the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses (ISPAN) and the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), which is geared towards all nurse practitioners, regardless of specialty. More information about each of these organizations is available on their respective websites.