Training for psychiatric nursing is evolving nationwide, including at the University of Minnesota. Come September 2009, the university will replace its master's degree program in psychiatric nursing with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree in psychiatric-mental health nursing, according to Merrie Kaas, DNSc, a nursing professor at the university. "We are educating our nurses to be doctorally prepared at the entry level of advance practice similar to the doctor of pharmacy, doctor of veterinary medicine, doctor of physical therapy," says Kaas.

Nurses fill the gap

She hopes that adding DNPs to the psychiatric workforce in Minnesota will help alleviate some of the current mental health needs. "We're not practicing in all the clinical places we need to be," Kaas says. "We need to be collaborating in primary care and community-based settings. Psychiatry still practices from an acute-care model. There's little emphasis on prevention."

In Minnesota, there are currently about 250 advanced practice psychiatric nurses who have master's degrees and can deliver psychotherapy and prescribe medication. Graduate-level degrees are not required to enter psychiatric nursing, however. Nurses enrolled in two- and four-year undergraduate programs also receive training in psychiatric care and can deliver basic care, such as assessing mental health needs, and developing and implementing a nursing diagnosis and treatment plan, according to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (www.apna.org). Many nurses also enter the psychiatric arena from other areas of practice, according to Kaas and Debra Cox, MS, RN, nurse administrator of psychiatric nursing at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Advanced degrees not necessary

"All nurses are accepted," says Cox. "We see new graduates as well as others who have practiced in other settings. Whether an individual comes with prior clinical experience or not, they have much to offer in joining us."

Psychiatric nurses work in diverse settings, including acute inpatient care, crisis intervention, hospital emergency departments, residential care and Assertive Community Treatment, a county service to keep patients with severe mental illness in their homes, Cox says.

Information and certification

APNA's website offers general information on psychiatric nursing, while the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses (www.ispn-psych.org) is dedicated to psychiatric specialty areas such as research, children and adolescents, and geriatric patients. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (www.ancc.org) offers certification testing and information.

With the World Health Organization predicting that depression will be the number one cause of disability worldwide in the coming decade, the high demand for psychiatric nurses will surely increase. Salaries, currently start at around $40,000 for RNs and BSNs and reach higher than $100,000 for more educated and/or experienced nurses.


Nancy Crotti is a freelance writer who lives in St. Paul.