Behavioral Health Nurse

Like medicine, nursing is becoming more and more specialized, and there are many avenues in nursing that you may not have considered. If you are interested in psychology and nursing, you can fuse the two interests into a rewarding and interesting career like behavioral health nursing. Behavioral health nurses treat patients with various issues, ranging from mental illness to addiction, to patients who simply need counseling as part of their healthcare. They can work with patients of all ages and walks of life, using behavioral therapies and knowledge of psychiatric nursing to help heal them mentally and physically. The nurses can help counsel individually and in groups. Sometimes they perform standard nursing duties while assessing patients’ psychological response to treatment or medications. Assessment and evaluation can also be an important part of their duties. Their patients may be coping with chemical dependency, mental illness, may be victims of violence or abuse, or coping with grief. They can work in hospitals, clinics, private practices, and also community health centers.

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If you are interested in behavioral health nursing, you will need to become a licensed registered nurse (RN). You need to find the right nursing program for you, and make sure it is accredited. You will also want to make sure that the nursing program you choose is approved by your state’s Board of Nursing. You can earn an associate degree in nursing (AND) or an associate of science in nursing (ASN) in just two years. Earning a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) in four years from a college or university is preferable, but an associate degree credits can also be applied toward a bachelor’s degree. If you already have a degree in another field, you can even find a nursing degree program that is accelerated for students with a Bachelor’s in another field.

Coursework in nursing programs will include a wide variety of nursing-related science courses, such as chemistry, nutrition, microbiology, physiology, anatomy, psychology, and other behavioral sciences. Focusing on behavioral sciences can give you a head start on this career as well. In addition to the standard nursing courses, covering topics like grief counseling, case report writing, developmental psychology, and chemical dependency counseling will be beneficial. Once you complete your nursing degree, you must pass the licensing exam. The licensing examination, called the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination) is a requirement by all state Boards of Nursing. Earning a master’s degree could enable you to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, taking on a whole new range of provider responsibilities, even running your own small clinic.

Certification is another important step in your nursing education. Certification, unlike licensing, is not legally mandated, but voluntary. It’s also not something you pursue immediately upon graduation. However, once you get an entry-level job in behavioral nursing, certification is a good idea to keep your career developing. Becoming certified demonstrates that your knowledge and skills meet national standards and are up-to-date. Because medicine is always evolving, staying current and knowledgeable about developments in your field is critical. Certification as a Psychiatric and Mental Health nurse is possible through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), and will award you the credentials RN-BC (registered nurse- board certified). In order to sit for the certification exam, you will need to hold an active RN license, with a minimum of two years experience as an RN, and 2,000 hours clinical experience in mental health nursing in the last three years. You must also have completed 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric mental health nursing within the last three years. Certification requires a lot of extra study and effort, but it will really pay off in salary, confidence, skills, and professional respect.

Professional organizations can also be a great resource for continuing education, as well as professional conferences and conventions. Check out the International Society of Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses and the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.

The average salary for a behavioral health nurse is $65,000 according to This will vary based on your location and your education, but will likely rise as you get more experience and if you earn certification. The outlook for this specialty, like for all nurses, is very good. Specialty nurses in particular will continue to grow and be in demand as it is also cost-effective for nurses to fill more roles and take on more responsibility. Get started on your nursing education if behavioral health nursing interests you. You will need your nursing degree to get started on this path, but it will surely make for a long-term, rewarding career in mental health nursing.

(Sources: American Psychiatric Nurses Association, International Society of Psychiatric Nurses)