What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Do?

Jul 31, 2020
Melissa Smith, MSN, PMHNP-BC

What are the typical responsibilities of a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

As a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, you will find that a lot of your work is education. Teaching patients and their care providers about their diagnosis and treatment options is essential for successful care of the patient with a mental health or substance abuse/use disorder. 

Teaching requires you to assess the patient and prepare them for management of their diagnosis. Incorporating what you have learned in your formal education along with anecdotal tools picked up during your career is what shapes your craft. Never be afraid to tell a patient you aren’t sure about something. Let them know you will find out the answer and make sure you follow through with a response.

To maintain your responsibilities as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, you must remain current with trends and changes of the specialty. Trust me, this sounds more difficult than it is. 

Maintaining your knowledge can be done in a variety of ways including reading journal articles (check out the American Psychiatric Nurses Association for links to some great resources), attending conferences, and even teaching nurse practitioner students. Writing for journals and nursing magazines can also become another method of learning.

Incorporating these activities into your professional routine will become second nature as you become more familiar with different aspects of advanced practice nursing. 

Remember, the more you learn, the better you will become at customizing treatments for your patients.

What should nurses entering this specialty expect to encounter on a regular basis?

When working as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, you may encounter several things on a frequent basis. Some things normal to your prior experience include working with patients that have trouble maintaining treatment compliance or their loved ones who don’t agree with the treatment plan. 

You may also encounter patients who don’t believe they have a mental health or psychiatric disorders. Initially, any of these situations can be difficult to experience if you are uncomfortable educating patients or caregivers about the diagnosis and/or treatment options.

Although you may have the previously mentioned negative experiences, you will have positive experiences that by far exceed them! You will encounter patients that know everything there is to know about their diagnosis and treatment options. These patients will openly talk to you about their symptoms and any side effects. 

You will also experience patients who have a family history of mental illness that want to do better for themselves. Work closely with these patients to find the most beneficial treatment options to address symptoms to the best of your capabilities.

You will learn something new every day. 

A symptom or side effect you may have heard of but never saw. Always have your thinking cap on. You might find yourself conducting a modified intake assessment because you can’t figure out what’s missing from prior visits. Performing an internet search or touching base with a colleague can help. Consulting with peers is also a great sounding board while building your professional relationships.

two people siting on bench one laying in the other lap and one with his head down psychiatric nurse practitioner mental health

My experience as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

I have been a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner for just under one year. I learned a lot on this journey and know I have a lot more to learn. I recommend you take every opportunity that presents itself to increase your experience and comfort with the responsibilities you have as a psychiatric provider.

What are some of the benefits of working as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

Working as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner provides many benefits, both professionally and personally. As a professional, you are regarded as an expert in mental health. Colleagues seek your input and trust your professional opinion. Your credentials permit you to work in a variety of settings which increase the flexibility of your hours, pay rate, and/or level of responsibility. 

You can also travel for professional reasons such as conferences, consultations, or travel assignments. Personally, I find the flexibility to choose my health benefits and retirement options while maximizing the flexibility of my schedule meets my family’s needs.

What are some of the not-so-great parts of working as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner?

Some not-so-great parts of this role are common of all nurse practitioner roles. You may experience parents who don’t agree with the treatment plan prescribed for their child. Although this may be common of all healthcare specialties, know that working in mental health comes with an additional set of challenges connected to social beliefs about mental illness. 

Another less than great part of working as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner includes exposure to persons who intend to manipulate your role. For instance, you may encounter a patient demanding a stronger medication than you would normally order. When these situations occur, stick to your professional training and evidence before prescribing an inappropriate medication.

Something you may not realize as a negative in this role is that you will spend a lot of time sitting. Interviewing patients requires a calm, non-stimulating, non-threatening environment. Seeing a different patient every 20 minutes for follow ups or hourly for intake assessments can limit your ability to move about. Having a sit-to-stand desk or other means to do brief sitting exercises can help prevent muscle fatigue and keep you thinking clearly.

three orange plastic pill bottles standing side by side psychiatric nurse practitioner mental health

Share your favorite piece of advice for nursing new grads or students looking to become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

No matter what specialty of nursing you enter, there are going to be days that you aren’t sure of yourself and times you wonder what you got yourself into. That’s normal! There will also be days you can’t wait for your next shift because you had so much fun. 

When choosing your specialty, be sure you like what you’re doing and taking care to learn all that you can. Enjoying what you do will motivate you to work with difficult cases and learn more about what you don’t know. One final note, ALWAYS ask questions when you have them!

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