The Mighty Logo

What Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Mean to the Future of Mental Health Care

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Have you heard of psychiatric nurse practitioners (PNPs)? What they may mean for mental health care is the potential for more treatment and access to therapy. Increasingly, nurse practitioners are taking over some of the duties of psychiatrists and providing services to people who have mental illness.

What qualifications do nurse practitioners have? They must have a master’s or doctorate in nursing with a psychiatric nurse practitioner concentration, plus two years of work experience. Unlike psychiatrists, they aren’t MDs.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners perform many of the same functions that psychiatrists do. They work in hospitals, rehab facilities, outpatient mental health centers, and even in private practice in many states. (Other states require that they work under the supervision of a physician.) In addition to providing psychotherapy, PNPs can write prescriptions — including for controlled substances — regulated by state boards of nursing. They work with other professionals and with families to meet patients’ needs and create a holistic care plan that typically includes therapy, counseling, and medication.

There’s a crying need for PNPs. It’s no secret that it’s difficult to find psychiatrists and psychotherapists and that the waiting list is long for a new patient seeking treatment. According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), 160 million Americans live in mental health professional shortage areas. They report that those areas need 8,041 mental health care practitioners to fill the gap.

It’s a good field to go into, too. Salaries are reported as ranging from $81,000 up to $140,000 per year. And in 2021, the unemployment rate was less than 1%. Currently, there are over 10,000 PNPs in the US, of which 80% are women. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the employment of all nurse practitioners will grow by 52% between 2020 and 2030! They anticipate 29,400 new job openings across the U.S. every year between 2020 and 2030.

Minority Nurse magazine reported in 2020 on why there’s such a strong demand and positive job outlook for PNPs. They cited expanded insurance coverage for mental health care under the ACA, increased awareness of the importance of mental health, and the mental health care needs of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The aging population of Americans may be another factor, as more and more people require services for disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

How good are PNPs? Psychiatric Times says that “patients report favorable experiences working with nurse practitioners.” Findings from one study determined that patients had “greater satisfaction with their care provided by nurse practitioners when compared with their MD colleagues….Investigators found that patient outcomes from nurse practitioners working independently or with MD collaboration had similar outcomes, when compared with the patients working with MDs alone.”

Although it seems that psychiatrists and PNPs ought to be natural allies, Psychiatric Times also notes that “national initiatives and some agencies have encouraged an us vs. them mentality, pitting psychiatrists against nurse practitioners and other advanced care providers.” That’s unfortunate for so many reasons.

I’ve never used the services of a psychiatric nurse practitioner, though there are several near me. If I had known about them when I was between psychiatrists, I certainly would have investigated the option. There’s something appealing about getting my therapy and my meds all from one person, a situation that hasn’t occurred since my previous psychiatrist retired. (I had to spend six months on a waiting list before I found another.)

For anyone in the same situation, I would suggest looking into it. I am convinced that PNPs have an important role to play in mental health care. If their presence reduces the problem of scarcity of mental health professionals, they should be welcomed, and awareness of their availability should be publicized. If more people knew about PMHNPs, it would expand the choices that mentally ill persons have. It would also benefit organizations, inpatient and outpatient facilities, and community-based care.

Is there a downside? I don’t see one.

Getty image by StockRocket

Originally published: March 30, 2023
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home