Self Help Plus

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

Mental health nursing is a specialized area of medicine where providers help patients work through everything from seasonal affective disorder to bipolar depression to schizophrenia. A mental health nurse can find jobs in hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, and more.  

It takes a special kind of person to work as a mental health nurse. Mental health nurses must be patient, calm in a crisis, good at deescalating tense interpersonal conflict. They must also be knowledgeable about a wide variety of mental health topics.  

Related: Basic Psychiatric Concepts 

Mental health nursing in the United States 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at least one in 5 adults will struggle with their mental health each year. One in 20 adults suffers from a serious mental health condition. In addition, over twelve million adults reported having thoughts of suicide in the year 2020. Unfortunately, only about 50% of people struggling with mental illness receive treatment.  

There is a clear need for better mental healthcare in the United States. Healthcare professionals and other experts have made more resources than ever before available for those struggling with mental health problems. Still, there is much more work to do.  

Adolescent mental health  

Mental illness is not just a problem in adults. One in six children and adolescents suffer from mental illness each year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in children 10 to 14 years of age.  

Social media has created a unique challenge for youth today. It pressures many children and teens to achieve perfection and popularity. Besides the dangers of social media, teens have to deal with unpredictability at school, potential financial instability at home, and bullying. Having a good mental healthcare provider and family support at home can help.  

Becoming a mental health nurse 

People who want to become mental health nurses will have to start by becoming a registered nurse. Becoming a registered nurse requires completing at least an associate degree through a university or college. Many healthcare facilities now prefer to hire nurses with a bachelor’s degree. Upon the completion of their training program, potential nurses have to pass the NCLEX-RN

After passing your licensure exam, registered nurses can start applying for jobs in mental health care. Most nurses will spend eight to twelve weeks completing on-the-job training as part of their new unit. On-the-job training is typically longer for acute care hospitals and shorter for clinic and outpatient jobs.  

Nurses working in mental health usually have special training in eating disorders, psychiatric disorders, de-escalation techniques, and substance abuse.  

Related: Caring for Patients with Mental Health Issues, 4th Edition 

Special training for mental health nurses 

Nurses who hope to specialize in behavioral health can complete continuing education and earn special certifications for behavioral health. Some nurses choose to advance their education and become Advanced Practice Registered Nurses. These nurses have at least a master’s degree and sometimes a doctorate. They can choose to specialize in mental healthcare and become Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners or Pediatric Primary Care Mental Health Specialists.  

Recognizing a mental health crisis 

Any healthcare provider should be able to identify signs of a mental health crisis and know when to refer a patient to a specialist or call for help. Some signs that a patient may be having a mental health crisis include:  

  • Rapid mood swings 
  • Inability to perform basic activities like personal hygiene or getting dressed 
  • Increased agitation 
  • Risk-taking or out-of-control behaviors 
  • Abusive behavior towards others 
  • Self-harm 
  • Isolation from work, school, family, and friends 
  • Loss of touch with reality 
  • Paranoia 

Related: Crisis Resource Management for Healthcare Professionals 

Therapeutic modalities used in mental healthcare 

There are many different treatment modalities and medications used to treat mental health disorders. Most healthcare providers recommend that patients try therapy or counseling in addition to medications. 

Finding the right medication to help manage mental health and psychiatric disorders can be challenging, at best. Providers must maintain open lines of communication with their patients to balance efficacy and tolerability, keep a close watch out for worsening symptoms, and encourage medication adherence at every appointment. Healthcare providers should remind patients that it typically takes 6 weeks for medications like antidepressants to start making a noticeable difference. 

Peer support for mental health Nurses 

Mental health nursing can be a rewarding career where you can make a big difference and improve the quality of life for many patients. However, nurses working in behavioral health are at high risk of experiencing burnout. 50% of healthcare providers working in mental health units report experiencing feelings of burnout during their careers. This may be a result of facing frequent moral dilemmas, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma.  

Mental health nurses should pay special attention to their own mental health needs, take time off when they need it, and seek support from their peers. Support groups for mental health nurses can be found at: