Role of a Mental Health Nurse: Why PMHNPs Matter

In a nation already struggling with mental health issues, worrying signs abound about the future.

According to Mental Health America (MHA), 21% — more than 50 million — of U.S. adults experienced mental illness from 2019 to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing challenges, with the Commonwealth Fund issuing a warning in 2020 about the danger of long-term mental health concerns because of increasing domestic violence, opioid overdose and a lack of access to care.

By October 2022, 90% of Americans believed that the U.S. was in a mental health crisis, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and CNN. In fact, 51% of adults reported that their families experienced a severe mental health crisis.

Mental health nurses are answering the call for assistance with these challenges. As the nation’s second-largest group of behavioral health professionals, according to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA), mental health nurses and nurse practitioners (NPs) work in various settings to provide a broad range of care to individuals, families, groups and communities.A patient holds the hand of a mental health nurse.

Anyone interested in a nursing career that allows for helping to address the nation’s mental health concerns should learn about the role of a mental health nurse. These professionals typically are registered nurses (RNs) or advanced nursing professionals called psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs). Their nursing work addresses social and behavioral influences as well as the role of the nervous system in mental health.

What Does a Mental Health Nurse Do?

Mental health nurses focus on building therapeutic relationships to address psychiatric disorders in patients of all ages. They may often need to blend their understanding of the psychosocial and neurobiological components of mental health. In addition to supporting patients’ mental and physical health, they may support the loved ones of those patients. Mental health nurses also work to educate individuals, families, communities and healthcare professionals about the importance of mental health.

Mental Health Nurse Responsibilities

RNs who work in mental health rely on strong nursing skills as well as empathy, patience and a willingness to help as they handle a broad range of responsibilities. Among the duties that make up the role of a mental health nurse are:

  • Promoting healthcare and health maintenance
  • Conducting patient intake screening, evaluation and triage assessments
  • Providing case management
  • Educating patients and families about self-care
  • Helping patients build coping skills
  • Administering and monitoring psychobiological treatments
  • Coordinating patient care
  • Working with interdisciplinary teams
  • Offering rehabilitation and intervention services
  • Educating patients, families and communities

Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities

As advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with higher-level responsibilities, PMHNPs are generally responsible for additional duties that go beyond those of mental health RNs. Although their specific duties can vary according to the nursing regulations in their state of practice, PMHNPs may perform additional tasks such as:

  • Leading psychotherapy for individuals, groups, couples and families
  • Ordering, performing and interpreting tests
  • Prescribing medication for acute and chronic conditions
  • Conducting comprehensive mental health assessments
  • Performing medical procedures
  • Providing clinical supervision
  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses
  • Offering mental, physical and emotional interventions
  • Developing practice policies

Mental Health Nurse Workplaces

Mental health nurses can work in healthcare and academic settings. Among their workplaces are:

  • Hospitals
  • Primary care facilities
  • Community health centers
  • Public health facilities
  • Schools
  • Private practice
  • Substance abuse treatment programs
  • Forensic health environments
  • Nursing homes

Why Are Mental Health Nurses Important?

The critical role that mental health has not only in emotional well-being but also in physical health makes the role of a mental health nurse important. The role is especially valuable as the nation faces a host of mental health concerns and a shortage of professionals to treat them.

Mental Health Challenges

The 2020 Commonwealth Fund study raised concerns about increases in mental health problems due to increases in the frequency of domestic violence and drug use during the pandemic. NBC News confirmed that most police departments that it contacted at the onset of the pandemic reported increases in domestic violence calls. Additionally, a 2022 report in the Journal of Urban Health found a significant increase in opioid overdose deaths during the pandemic.

In 2022, the KFF/CNN survey showed that a third of adults reported always or often feeling anxious. Twenty-one percent reported always or often feeling depressed. In addition to current events, finances were among the stressors that exacerbated anxiety and depression.

WebMD notes that the issues with mental health can also have an effect on physical health. It links depression and chronic disease, for example, and reports an increased mortality rate for individuals who have mental health issues.

Mental Healthcare Shortages

Individuals with mental health conditions are also more likely to have problems accessing care. In October 2022, 157 million Americans lived in mental health professional shortage areas (HPSAs), according to the Health Resources & Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Experts believe that mental health nurses can play a critical role in addressing the unmet need for care. For example, in 2021, the Psychiatric Times encouraged psychiatrists and PHMNPs to work together to fill the gaps.

Why Become a Mental Health Nurse?

Whether it’s as a mental health RN or a PMHNP, the benefits of becoming a mental health nurse are many. The career offers the opportunity to make a difference in addressing the mental health challenges that plague individuals, households and communities. It also presents strong growth and salary potential, particularly for nursing professionals seeking to become PMHNPs.

Addressing Mental Healthcare Needs

The mental health nurse role can provide the satisfaction of helping individuals improve their lives. In areas with a shortage of mental health resources, the job offers the additional benefit of assisting communities as they work to meet their citizens’ needs.

Pursuing an In-Demand Career

Because of the many mental health challenges facing Americans, APNA indicates that nurses who specialize in this area will benefit from rising demand. A 2019 APNA report outlined major deficits in access to mental health care throughout the U.S., particularly in rural areas and minority populations. It argued that PMHNPs are positioned to play a critical role in meeting this demand — but that many more of them will be needed to do so.

Overall, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 112,700 additional jobs for NPs between 2021 and 2031, representing an extremely rapid growth rate of 46%.

Seeking Strong Salary Potential

RNs and NPs also command higher-than-average median annual salaries. The median annual salary for all occupations was $45,760 in May 2021, according to the BLS. For RNs, it was $77,600 and for NPs, $120,680..

Advance Your Career in a Critical Nursing Role

The U.S. is struggling with various mental health issues and a shortage of healthcare professionals to address them. Mental health nurses are playing an important role in meeting these mental health — and mental healthcare — demands.

If you’re considering an advanced mental health nurse role as a PMHNP, explore the Duquesne University online MSN program. Its Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner concentration can prepare nursing professionals to take on this nursing leadership position, learning how to diagnose and treat patients with acute and chronic mental health disorders

The flexible program allows you to complete your degree work as you continue with your current job. It can prepare you to not only assist patients with a range of behavioral and mental health problems but also collaborate with other medical professionals to meet one of the healthcare system’s most pressing needs.


Recommended Readings

Working as a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

What Are the Nurse Practitioner Specialties Nurses Can Pursue?

What Does a PMHNP Do?



American Psychiatric Nurses Association, About Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, Expanding Mental Health Care Services in America: The Pivotal Role of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, Frequently Asked Questions About Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

Exam Edge, 5 Advantages of Becoming a Psychiatric and Mental Health NP

Health Resources & Services Administration, Health Workforce Shortage Areas

Journal of Urban Health, “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Opioid Overdose Deaths: A Spatiotemporal Analysis”

Kaiser Family Foundation, New KFF/CNN Survey on Mental Health Finds Young Adults in Crisis; More Than a Third Say Their Mental Health Keeps Them from Doing Normal Activities

Medical News Today, “What to Know About Psychiatric Nurses”

Mental Health America, The State of Mental Health in America

NBC News, “Police See Rise in Domestic Violence Calls Amid Coronavirus Lockdown”

Psychiatric Times, “Partnering with Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners”

The Commonwealth Fund, “The Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health”

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses