Amongst the many fields of nursing, psychiatric-mental health provides the opportunities to support patients through mental health issues from substance abuse to disordered eating and beyond.

Mental health is now discussed with more normalcy and transparency. Despite this progress, only half of the individuals battling mental illness get the treatment they need.

But a psych nurse plays an integral role in changing patient outcomes.1 

So, what is a psychiatric nurse, and how do you get started on this rewarding career path?

As you may have already come across in your research, not all areas of nursing follow the same trajectory.  This comprehensive blog on how to become a psychiatric nurse will provide you with a map of the road towards becoming a certified PMHN.

Step One: Choose Your Educational Path

A psychiatric nurse specializes in caring for those who have mental health conditions or disorders.  A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner will need to start with a degree in nursing. You can become a registered psychiatric nurse in several different ways. Depending on your timeline, budget, and long-term goals, you might find one course of action more suited to you than the others. 

Here are the four options for meeting the requirements of a registered psychiatric nurse: 

  • A two-year associate’s degree in nursing – Also known as an ADN, this is for candidates looking to fast-track their psychiatric and mental health nursing career. It takes a minimum of two years for students to gain eligibility for the NCLEX-RN exam.
  • An RN diploma – This diploma, which can be earned over the course of two to three years, is another viable pathway to the NCLEX exam. While it is not an official academic degree, it provides students with access to courses in general education as well as several clinical rotation hours. Students choosing this option must be sure to confirm that their state licensing board approves their diploma before proceeding. 
  • A four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing – This option, called a BSN, is recommended by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Though it could add up to two extra years of study, the required curriculum for the bachelor’s degree in nursing covers a broad range of topics like community health, case management, and nursing leadership. 
  • A master of science in nursing – If you already have a Bachelor’s degree in a subject other than nursing, you can progress directly to an MSN degree (as long as you’ve met all course prerequisites). This degree usually takes two years to complete.

When choosing between these three educational pathways, remember that there is no wrong way to bring your nursing dreams within reach. However, it’s prudent to check job postings in your area to see which degree local employers prefer.

Some employers may hire ADNs or RN diplomas on the condition that they work towards a terminal degree while on the job. 

In addition, keep in mind that the earning potential for psychiatric nurses holding a BSN or MSN is often higher by $15,000 per year or more.2 

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Choosing Your Courses

Most nursing programs have a number of required courses along with some electives.

If you already know you plan to pursue a career in psychiatric nursing, plan your schedule accordingly. Potential areas of concentration within psychiatric nursing include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Addiction
  • Psychiatric disorders (e.g. disordered eating, bipolar disorder)
  • Geropsychiatric nursing
  • Pediatric psychiatry
  • Forensic nursing

Check out our blog post on the ins and outs of psychiatric nursing for more information on potential career paths.

Reputable Programs

If you don’t know where to start in your search for ADN or BSN programs, set your sights high and have a look at some of the most reputable programs. Find out what makes them so highly rated. 

According to the Best College Reviews of 2021, some of the top programs in the country to pursue a nursing degree include:

  • University of California-Los Angeles 
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • Georgetown University
  • The University of Texas Medical Branch
  • Binghamton University3

For students interested in taking the ADN route, the following schools rank amongst the top in successful pass rates for the NCLEX-RN exam:

  • Chabot College
  • Monterey Peninsula College
  • Laredo College
  • Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College-Bowling Green
  • Lakes Region Community College4

Completing a degree from a prestigious nursing program may set you up for success down the line. Still, a top-ranking university or college is not necessary for everyone pursuing a career in psychiatric nursing.

Whether you prefer online classes or the time-saving element of a two-year program, weigh the pros and cons and find the one that best meets your needs.  

Step Two: Pass Your Exam 

Once you’ve completed the degree or diploma in nursing within your preferred timeline, the next step toward a career in psychiatric nursing is studying for and passing the NCLEX to become a registered nurse. 

Note: There are two versions of the NCLEX. The NCLEX-RN is for candidates who have obtained a BSN or an ADN. Alternatively, candidates with a nursing diploma will take the NCLEX-PN.  

There is no specialized evaluation for a psychiatric nurse practitioner on this exam. Instead, it is a holistic assessment that focuses on four main areas of study applicable to a wide variety of nursing fields: 

  • Providing a safe and effective care environment
  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Psychosocial integrity
  • Physiological integrity

The National Council Licensure Exam for registered nursing candidates can be the most stressful phase for some students. With your goal just within reach now, here are a few tips to ensure success at this stage: 

  • Be sure to obtain an Authorization To Test (ATT) letter from your nursing regulatory body before taking the exam.
  • Get familiar with the text format. 
  • Understand your learning and studying style. 
  • Instead of cramming, make a plan and pace your studies. 
  • Enroll in a test preparation course. 

Passing the NCLEX will not only be a remarkable accomplishment, but it will also propel you forward in your career as a psychiatric nurse. 

Step Three: A Pathway to Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX and become a registered nurse, you will be able to enter the workforce as a psychiatric nurse.

The clinical rotations you completed in nursing school may help leverage you into your preferred work environment. You can choose to work in a variety of settings.This includes rehabilitation centers, psychiatric hospitals, or assisted living facilities.

As you gain more experience in your nursing practice, you’ll be able to approach the next tier of psychiatric nursing advancement: obtaining a psychiatric mental health nursing certification.

To qualify for the Psychiatric NP certification, you’ll need:

  • An active license as a registered nurse
  • Two years of full-time practice as a registered nurse
  •  2,000 hours of clinical experience in psychiatric mental health nursing within 3 years of passing the NCLEX
  • 30 hours of continuing education of psychiatric nurse practitioner program within 3 years of passing the NCLEX5

After fulfilling these requirements, you will be eligible to take an ANCC exam. Upon passing, you’ll receive your credential as a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse – Board Certified (PMH-BC™).

Step Four: Additional Advancement Opportunities 

All in all, embarking on a career as a psychiatric nurse can take anywhere from four to seven years.

But for psychiatric nurses intent upon taking their careers to their fullest potential, there are still more advancement options.

By obtaining a master’s or doctoral degree, accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), a psychiatric nurse can earn the title of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).

Upon completion of a higher degree, an advanced practice registered nurse will again need to accrue a certain number of clinical hours within the field before proving their knowledge on an exam administered by the American Nursing Credentialing Center. 

As with PMHNs, certifications are state-specific and requirements for each should be reviewed before proceeding. 

Kick-Start Your Career in Psychiatric Nursing with Host Healthcare  

Though it may seem like a long road to a career in psychiatric nursing, you’ll never go wrong as long as you pursue it with passion and conviction. Maintain a strong sense of what your goals are and allow your motivation for entering the field to carry you through when things feel overwhelming.

Once you’ve completed your studies, passed your exam, and are looking to enter the workforce as a mental health nurse, consider reaching out to Host Healthcare

Why not use your advanced practice nurse credentials to travel as a PMHN? After all, your skills are in need and in demand.

At Host Healthcare, we care about supporting your professional goals and encouraging your adventurous spirit. Embrace the unique opportunity to blend your passion for mental health with the excitement of travel by pursuing our psych travel nursing jobs today.



  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Statistics.
  2. Nurse Journal. RN vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: The Differences.
  3. Best College Reviews. Best Bachelor’s Programs in Nursing.
  4. RN Careers. 2021 Best RN-ADN Nursing Schools in the United States
  5. 4 Steps to Becoming a Psychiatric Nurse.
  6. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The Baccalaureate Degree in Nursing as Minimal Preparation for Professional Practice.
  8. Herzing University. 5 Things You Need to Know Before Taking the NCLEX.