What It Takes to Succeed as a Psychiatric Nurse


Psychiatric nurses are in demand

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increases in mental health issues, creating greater demand for psychiatric nurses.

A February 2021 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated 41 percent of American adults were experiencing anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder. That compared to 11 percent in 2019.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in April 2021 a similar rate of 41.5 percent of people suffering from anxiety or a depressive disorder.

Adam McGahee, DNP, MBA, associate clinical director at Montefiore Behavioral Health Center Westchester Square, an outpatient facility in Bronx, New York, reported a significant increase in volume at his outpatient clinic related to the pandemic. The facility has hired more mental health clinicians, including filling psychiatric nurse jobs.

“Especially during the pandemic, patients are coming to our field in crisis,” McGahee said. “They need someone who can be empathetic, understanding, caring, respectful and help guide them through their own thoughts to get to a better place.”

Inpatient admissions toward the end of the pandemic have increased at Timberline Knolls in Lemont, Illinois, reported Danielle Ericksen, director of nurses. 

“People can only be isolated and stuck in their homes before they reach a breaking point,” she said. 

Overcoming stigmas and barriers to mental health care

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to think about the importance of mental health and reduce the stigma associated with seeking care. McGahee reported that younger adults are much more accepting of mental health services than baby boomers and older adults. 

“The stigma used to exist but is slowly going away, increasing demand for us,” McGahee said. 

Ericksen agreed that the stigma associated with mental health treatment is decreasing. 

“The more we normalize it, more people will get help,” Ericksen said. 

Access remains a tremendous barrier to mental health care, said Marissa Abram, PhD, PMHNP-BC, CARN-AP, FIAAN, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Public Health at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. She reported a scarcity of mental health nursing professionals, particularly in rural areas. Services became limited, even in New York, as behavioral health units were converted to COVID-19 units.

Skills needed to succeed as a psychiatric nurse

Psychiatric nurses work in a number of settings including outpatient, inpatient, emergency departments, and substance abuse or dual diagnosis facilities. 

Mental health nursing requires strong clinical skills as well as excellent communication skills, patience and a talent for active listening. 

“Building rapport with the residents are the most challenging and rewarding [skills] at the same time,” Ericksen said. “Being a psychiatric nurse is a different language and a different way to work with people than being in an [acute care] hospital setting.” 

When hiring for a psychiatric nurse job, Ericksen looks for compassion, caring, patience and strong people skills. Mental health nurses also need a “thick skin” and to not take patients’ outbursts personally. 

Abram added that psychiatric nurses must be with the patient at their level and deliver interventions in a compassionate way to facilitate their recovery. The registered nurses at McGahee’s clinic provide health education to address physical conditions associated with mental health diagnoses. 

“When building trust, presence is huge,” Abram said.

Abram also emphasized the importance of nurses caring for themselves and each other, whether they work in mental health or another discipline.

Rewards in a psychiatric nursing job

Ericksen acknowledged that is sometimes difficult to see successful outcomes in a residential setting, but patients often return and participate in an alumni program. 

“The challenges we have are worth it to hear one person’s outcome is a positive one,” Ericksen said. 

The rewards are “being able to meet [the patients] where they are and get them to a better space, mentally and also physically,” McGahee said. 

McGahee also enjoys working with professionals who have different perspectives and approaches to care.

Becoming a psychiatric nurse

Many psychiatric nurses, including Abram, began their careers in medical–surgical units or other acute care settings, but some, such as Ericksen and McGahee, knew mental health nursing was for them and started out in the field.   

Psychiatric nurses can take additional training, such as learning de-escalation techniques. With experience, they can obtain certification to demonstrate expertise in the mental health nursing specialty. 

Mental health nursing “is about connection,” McGahee said. 

Abram added, “Nursing is a combination of the science and art,” and psychiatric nurses demonstrate that daily.  


Browse dozens of psychiatric nursing jobs at NursingJobs.com, including travel, per diem and permanent positions, or apply today to connect with a recruiter.

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