Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degrees for Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

Mental health—and the treatment of it—remains a critical healthcare issue in the United States.

According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, mental disorders are among the most common disabilities in the U.S. In fact, in any given year, it is estimated that about 43.6 million U.S. adults (that’s about 18% of the population) suffer from a mental illness and another 9.8 million suffer from a seriously debilitating mental illness. It comes as no surprise, then, that the demand for psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners has never been greater.

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Whether they’re working with, and assessing the needs of individuals, families, groups, or communities, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners provide comprehensive, holistic care for people with psychiatric conditions. These advanced nurse practitioners are qualified to deliver care across the lifespan, from children to seniors, and provide a variety of psychotherapies and biological interventions to make a difference in the lives of their patients.

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PMHNPs are autonomous providers who may work alone or alongside psychiatrists and other healthcare providers to deliver and evaluate plans of care for people with psychiatric disorders. Their national certification and state license allow them to use a range of therapeutic skills including psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy to treat their patients.

The work of PMHNPs often occurs in both doctor- and nurse practitioner-led private practices, and many choose to operate their own practices. They also fill important roles in both primary care and psychiatric practices, and sometimes serve as consultants or liaisons for courts or state agencies in instances where psychiatric assessments are needed. These practitioners are also highly valued in hospitals, nursing homes, community healthcare settings, and more.

Most psychiatric nurse practitioners focus their practice on areas like substance abuse disorders, forensics, gerontological mental health, and child and adolescent mental health.

Why the Fight for Practice Autonomy and Prescriptive Authority Remain Vital to Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners

The national nursing movement calling for APRN autonomy continues to gain steam as physician shortages become a bigger and bigger problem in many parts of the country. The National Academy of Medicine and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing are just a couple of the big players calling on states to allow APRNs to practice and prescribe medicine without onerous physician oversight requirements that can put serious limitations on the care available in many communities.

The demand for mental health providers is on the rise as they’re needed more than ever to treat veterans with PTSD and an increasing number of older adults who struggle with a dementia and other age-related mood disorders.

At the same time, Mental Health America reports that about 20% of all adults with a mental illness reported they were unable to get the treatment they needed, largely due to a lack of insurance and a lack of treatment providers.

Currently, 28 states and Washington D.C. allow psychiatric nurse practitioners and other APRNs to provide comprehensive care to patients to include prescribing medications, without any direct or non-direct physician oversight. This type of independent practice is vital, particularly in areas of the country where psychiatrists are either scarce or non-existent.

The remaining states still require some type of physician collaboration or oversight agreement for APRNs for the entirety of their career.

The Education and Certification Requirements You’ll Need to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

To become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, you’ll need to earn national certification and a state license to practice. For most, that means starting off as an RN before making the move to advanced practice by earning a DNP or MSN in Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Once you graduate, you’ll need to become certified as a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC) through The American Nurses Credentialing Center Certification Program (ANCC).

Although you can earn national certification and state licensure to practice as a PMHNP by completing an MSN in that area of practice, many nurses are choosing instead to earn the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). For many psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, the DNP comes with a larger paycheck, more professional opportunities, and a level of respect and recognition that the MSN can’t match.

There is a clear trend toward the doctorate. Many healthcare professionals, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, and audiologists, are already required to hold doctorates, and there’s been a push to see state nursing boards and certification agencies adopt the DNP as the new standard minimum for APRNs. Many RNs who make the decision to go into advanced practice view the DNP as a way to futureproof their careers.

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With the popularity of the DNP increasing in recent years, colleges and universities have responded by offering it with a number of entry points:

  • Post BSN-DNP: This three-year degree consists of about 73 credits and is designed for BSN nurses who want to earn both their MSN and DNP in one, combined program.
  • Post MSN-DNP: This two-year degree, designed for both MSN-prepared APRNs and non-APRNs, features about 36 credits.
  • Direct-Entry DNP: This unique degree is specifically designed for career-changers who hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. It consists of about four and a half years of study and includes RN licensure, the MSN, and the DNP.

For all entry points, DNP-PMHNP programs include courses and clinical experiences that meet the AACN’s 8 DNP Essentials, as well as courses and clinical experiences that prepare students for APRN certification in their chosen role and population focus. A sample of courses specific to a DNP-PMHNP program include:

  • Psychiatric Assessment, Diagnosis and Management of Children & Adolescents
  • Psychiatric Assessment, Diagnosis and Management of Adults & Geriatrics
  • Therapeutic Modalities: Introduction to Therapies
  • Psychiatric Assessment Across the Lifespan

Salary Expectations for Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners’ annual NP survey, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners earn an average, annual salary of $131,500 – making it one of the highest paid NP specialty areas.


A 2019 Medscape Compensation Report found that psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners earned an average of $114,000 – much more than the average salary of $108,000 among all NP specialists.