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Examining the similarities and differences between psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners

Have you ever wanted to pursue a mental health professional career? As the United States faces a mental health crisis, more professionals than ever are needed to support and treat individuals with cognitive problems and improve their quality of life. Like physical health, mental health professionals can improve cognitive health by establishing solid relationships, encouraging healthy behaviors, and treating symptoms early.

According to a study by the American Association of Medical Colleges, roughly 2,000 mental healthcare professionals are needed annually to combat the nation’s growing mental health crisis. Among the mental health providers that evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients are psychiatrists and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP). Both career paths are closely aligned and share similarities, so it’s common to mistake one for another.

Like psychiatrists, PMHNPs are advanced practice professionals who care for individuals with mental health and psychiatric disorders. Both professionals assess, diagnose, and help patients through hospitalization, medication, counseling, analysis, and psychotherapy. This requires them to use a comprehensive knowledge of human behavior and mental health conditions to help patients handle symptoms linked with cognitive health and substance disorders.

Psychiatrists and PMHNP careers overlap in more ways than one. They often work in hospitals, correctional facilities, schools, private group practices, and rehabilitation and substance use treatment centers. Despite their similarities, the roles of psychiatrists and PMHNPs are not entirely the same. Depending on location and state laws, academic requirements and licensure for each position and their scope of practice differ. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between these two and find the most suitable career for your professional goals.

Level of Training and Education

Psychiatrists and PMHNPs differ in the level of training and education they receive. Psychiatrists must earn an undergraduate degree in pre-med or a related field and graduate with a medical degree from an accredited institution. Depending on their chosen academic institution, those interested in psychiatry must complete an undergraduate degree, take and pass the medical school admission examination, earn their degree, and pass an examination to gain their state license.

After that, psychiatrists must complete a psychiatric residency, which takes up to four years before obtaining certification through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. They must also meet any continuing education requirements by the state to keep their licenses valid.

This is the opposite for PMHNP professionals, who are not required to attend medical school to acquire a license. However, they must obtain an advanced nursing degree, which takes at least two years if they already acquired an undergraduate degree. So, becoming a PMHNP can take roughly six years, during which time they will also perform clinical work.

While working towards their MSN degree, students will take advanced-practice classes geared toward psychiatric mental health studies, such as psychopharmacology, family therapy, individual psychotherapy, and psychiatric mental health nursing. This provides students with foundational concepts and principles of nursing care that help them assess patients, provide treatments, and administer medications correctly. After earning their degree, PMHNPs can obtain certification for licensing to practice mental healthcare.

Prescribing and Administrative Authority Differences

In the past, a psychiatrist was the only authorized professional to prescribe medications to treat mental health issues. Now, PMHNPs can prescribe medications depending on the state where they practice. This topographic distinction in prescribing authority can be a difference-maker for individuals pursuing a PMHNP career since their ability to practice independently depends on their location.

While every state gives PMHNPs prescription privileges, some locations require them to work under a medical doctor. So, you must understand state laws and regulations before deciding which career to pursue. This lets you take control of your career progression and gain the skills and qualifications necessary to become a competent PMHNP professional within your chosen job market.

Both professionals also differ in administrative authority. For instance, a psychiatrist can work in an executive role in a mental health hospital and review and sign off on decisions by PMHNPs under their watch. However, this does not entirely mean psychiatrists exercise greater responsibility since both can diagnose and treat mental health disorders, establish and run independent practices, and conduct and publish research.

Although they share differing administrative and prescribing authorities, they still work together in strategizing mental healthcare delivery to benefit patients and communities. Both professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and follow similar protocols when treating patients. Doing so allows them to make treatment plans based on patient goals and requirements and determine the risk factors influencing patient mental health.

License and Certification

PMHNPs and psychiatrists must hold a license to practice. Psychiatrists can register for certification and obtain their MD license within their practice state. Their board certifications are valid for a decade, and psychiatrists must retake the exam once every ten years to uphold the credential.

Meanwhile, the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers certification for PMHNPs. These professionals are board-certified and hold a nurse practitioner license in the state in which they reside. While it’s optional, earning certification may provide PMHNPs a strategic advantage when seeking a position in states like Washington, wherein they can practice autonomously with all the same duties as psychiatrists.

You may want to earn the ANCC PMHNP – Across the Lifespan Board certification, which aligns with the Consensus Model for APRN Regulation, Licensure, Accreditation, Certification, and Education. While working toward this certification, you will practice as an independent healthcare team member in various settings and collaborate with other health professionals to provide mental care services across patients’ lifespans. Activities include conducting a comprehensive screening history and physical examinations, formulating initial physical diagnoses, and prescribing psychotropic medications.

This allows you to provide holistic patient care and bridge the standard gap between physical and mental healthcare. For example, a PMHNP practicing in a mental health clinic can develop targeted psychiatric care while evaluating, determining, and tracking co-morbid medical problems. Upon completion of the certification exam, the PMHNP is eligible for third-party reimbursement and entitled to apply for prescriptive privileges as an advanced practice nurse depending on state licensure laws.

Why Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

Becoming a PMHNP can be ideal for individuals wanting to integrate a holistic care approach that meets individuals at different stages of their lives and guides them toward well-being. This allows them to tailor each patient’s care plan beyond a standard approach to offer them the prioritized attention they need and deserve. PMHNPs undergo comprehensive training, and in return, they enjoy a high-paying and fulfilling career.

It Can Be Rewarding

Working as a PMHNP is challenging, evolutionary, grounding, and satisfying at the same time. Unlike typical American workers, PMHNPs work in challenging and high-stress environments where they can change lives and reach needy patients. According to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, roughly 44% of PMHNPs work with federally-insured patients who, without that program, would lack mental care access.

This is especially important nowadays, considering the absence of rewarding work in daily job duties is one of the reasons many American employees feel drained. As per the American Psychology Association, finding meaning in something you do can increase job satisfaction and motivation. Meaningful work is the essence of PMHNP. Working as a PMHNP can make you feel like you are a part of something bigger than yourself, as it cultivates your desire to help patients become better in more ways than one.

It Has a High Salary Potential

The mental healthcare industry’s salary is almost always better than other sectors because of the continuous demand. Recent data reveals a psychiatric nurse earns an average of $82,100 annually, but the salary range typically falls between $75,100 and $92,700 depending on experience, skills, certifications, and qualifications. Although money is not everything, it can be critical in career-related decisions.

Stable and lucrative pay can smooth over work challenges. If you have advanced skills and qualifications, you can even demand a salary based on your goals. Furthermore, working as a PMHNP ensures you’ll never be out of work, considering the country’s growing demand for mental healthcare professionals.

It Lets You Specialize

PMHNPs can specialize in several niches. These specializations fall under the umbrella of mental healthcare, although they are unique concentration areas. Depending on your personal and professional goals, you can specialize in working with a specific population, including addicts, families, prisoners, adolescents, and the elderly.

The rewards for specializing and growing are substantial, making PMHNP a practical career option. Once you specialize, you can operate and become an expert in a specific field by impacting healthcare outcomes, education, and practice. This also opens multiple job opportunities and lets you find meaningful work.

It Lets You Shape Mental Health Policy

PMHNPs face mental illnesses daily. What makes it worse is there are several barriers to mental health. The stigmas linked with mental health only complicate a patient’s ability to seek or receive immediate treatment. While this wave of depression, anxiety, and other adverse emotional outcomes are challenging to witness and even more brutal to experience, PMHNPs are uniquely positioned to reduce the stigma of mental health issues.

Every society has a different way of viewing mental health. Several cultures look at mental health challenges as weaknesses to be hidden. This makes it more challenging for those struggling to open up and seek help. This stigma often leads to lawmakers putting band-aids on the crux of the issues rather than establishing solutions that could positively impact the community.

PMHNPs can become policy advocates that help these lawmakers understand the symptoms and find ways to support mentally disabled individuals. As frontline healthcare members who meet the needs of several patients, PMHNPs are crucial in relating personal experiences of how policy impacts mental healthcare. Using their influence in establishing mental health policies, they can encourage ways to reduce the mental health crisis and improve care at a policy level.

How to Become a PMHNP Professional?

A career path to becoming a PMHNP begins at an accredited nursing school. This psychiatric nurse practitioner vs psychiatrist guide will provide steps on becoming a PMHNP while studying at a prestigious academic institution such as Spring Arbor University. While working toward your degree, you will encounter programs that prepare you to deliver a full spectrum of care to patients with organic brain disorders, psychiatric disorders, and other mental health issues.

The first step is earning an undergraduate nursing degree, which will teach you the foundational care principles. You must then pass National Council Licensure-Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN) examination to apply for state licensure. This enables you to apply to an accredited PMHNP program. Depending on your chosen university, a virtual degree will require you to complete roughly 500 clinical hours in a hospital or mental healthcare facility.

At a minimum, you must earn a Master of Science in nursing. This allows you to specialize in psychiatric and mental healthcare services through clinical placements and coursework. Since mental health nursing deals with complex medical concepts and processes, you should expect more lectures, seminars, and practical examinations while working toward your degree.

These comprehensive lectures often discuss public health, occupational health, psychosocial interventions, and complex mental health needs. PMHNPs also use biological interventions and traditional approaches by penetrating conditions, partnering with people, and making a difference in people’s lives. You may also encounter examinations and activities to help you develop clinical competencies in group therapies, medication administration, healthcare education, client administration, and therapeutic relationships.

After earning their advanced degrees and clinical hours, PMNHNPs must complete certification exams that evaluate whether applicants are prepared for the jump to practitioner roles. Once you receive your certification, you must renew it every five years through the ANCC and your state board.

Work toward a Meaningful Career as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Today

The need for experts to help patients navigate cognitive challenges grows more critical as the current healthcare system is overwhelmed by the sudden increase in mental health issues. Becoming a PMHNP empowers you to help individuals from different walks of life overcome mental health challenges and ensure quality healthcare access.

About Derek Eaton

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