Mental Health Residential Nurse Careers: Salary & Job Description

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Learn about a mental health residential nurse's job description, salary and training requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of a mental health residential nurse career.
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Pros and Cons of a Mental Health Residential Nurse Career

As a mental health nurse, you may have the opportunity to help improve the lives and well-being of the patients under your charge. Keep reading to learn about the pros and cons for this field.

Pros of a Mental Health Residential Nurse Career
Opportunity to improve patients' lives through emotional support and advice*
Job growth expected to increase faster than the average for all professions (19% between 2012 and 2022)*
Possibility for advancement with experience and continuing education*
Many areas of focus within mental health nursing, like adolescent, military or substance abuse***
Generous job benefits, such as medical insurance and paid vacation time**
Ability to move into other nursing roles, such as management, teaching or advanced practice nursing*

Cons of a Mental Health Residential Nurse Career
May have to work 24-hour shifts*
Work shifts can include nights, weekends, holidays or on call*
Risk of injury from job's physical requirements (i.e. lifting patients, bending)*
Mentally ill patients may become uncooperative or violent****
Some jobs are only part-time*****
Must earn an advanced degree to diagnose patients and prescribe medication***

Sources: *The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **University of Pittsbugh Medical Center, ***American Psychiatric Nurses Association, ****American Association of Colleges of Nursing, *****Devereux Foundation.

Career Information

Job Description

The American Psychiatric Nurses Association states that mental health nursing is considered a specialty within the field of nursing. As a psychiatric mental health nurse (PMHN), you may provide live-in care to patients with mental health problems, including schizophrenia, depression and others. Nursing homes, assisted living facilities, prisons and other residential facilities are just some of the places you can find employment. You may develop a nursing diagnosis and treatment plan, begin the nursing process and determine the effectiveness of the treatment. If you become an advanced practice nurse (psychiatric mental health advanced practice nurse, or PMH-APRN), you are allowed to treat patients with a full range of therapeutic skills, including diagnosing and prescribing medications.

Career Specializations

Some mental health nurses prefer to work with certain populations or in certain aspects of the nursing profession. For example, you can choose to work with the elderly, children and families or with people who suffer from drug and alcohol addictions. You can also work in forensics or in a consultation-liaison role.

Career Prospects and Salary Info

The BLS reports that career prospects for registered nurses are excellent. The increased lifespan of the aging population, technological advancements and the growing emphasis in preventative care are some of the factors contributing to a healthy job market for nurses. According to the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, like all nursing fields, there is a shortage of mental health nurses at all levels and in most roles. The BLS also states that employers in some parts of the U.S. say they have difficulty attracting and retaining enough nurses in general in their staff.

According to Payscale.com as of 2015, the majority of PMHNs with 0-5 years of experience earned about $55,000 annually, while those working for 10-20 years about $64,000. Also per Payscale.com, the majority of PMH-APRNs earned a salary between $69,000 and $117,000 yearly.

Educational and Training Requirements

To become a PMHN, the American Psychiatric Nurses Association says that most students are typically educated and trained through an associate's, diploma or bachelor's program in general nursing. You may gain practical experience in mental health care through the nursing program's supervised clinical rotation. After graduation, you are eligible to take the licensing exam for RNs.

From there, you may find entry-level employment in places such as a mental health residential facility, hospital or agency. However, to practice skills such as diagnosing, prescribing, psychotherapy and liaison, you have to become a PMH-APRN by obtaining a graduate degree. Advanced practice nurses are typically either nurse practitioners (NPs) or clinical nurse specialists (CNSs). Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is the doctoral degree for nurses. If you wish to work in administration, research or as a professor, you would most likely earn a Ph.D. or Ed.D.

Licensure and Certification

All nurses must graduate from an approved program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Additional licensing requirements vary with each state. Certification is generally voluntary at the RN level, but some employers may require it, according to the BLS. Certification, whether required or not, signifies adherence to high standards. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers certification at all levels.

Important Skills

To become a PMHN, you should possess or develop certain skills to help you achieve success and provide quality care to the patients under your charge. A compassionate and patient nature is particularly valuable when dealing with people who have different degrees of mental illnesses. Nurses must regularly document care reports and must administer the correct medications at the right times; therefore, it's also important to be detail oriented and well organized. Additionally, effective communication skills are needed in this line of work since it involves a good deal of interaction with patients, their families, doctors and other medical staff.

What Employers Look for

Job listings reveal that there are currently ample jobs in this field. Employers are searching for nurses at all levels and within various settings. The following are real job postings that were available in April 2012.

  • An in-patient psychiatric youth shelter in Florida is seeking a registered nurse to perform duties such as ordering supplies, administering medications and assessing patients after they've been restrained. The selected candidate must be willing to be on-call. An associate's degree or diploma, plus one year of nursing experience is also necessary, though the employer would prefer to hire someone with a bachelor's degree and experience working with children and/or in a psychiatric treatment setting.
  • A residential treatment facility in Portland, Oregon, needs a licensed mental health nurse practitioner with strong interpersonal and communication skills to treat adult patients with moderate to severe mental illnesses. Initial and ongoing psychiatric assessments and managing medications are some of the listed job responsibilities.
  • A residential rehabilitation treatment facility in Michigan that serves veterans is looking for a registered nurse with experience to administer medications and provide personal care services to injured and ill patients. The nurse will collaborate with other members of the healthcare team to promote positive patient outcomes. The chosen candidate will also be responsible for duties like assessments and documenting behavior and changes in the patients' condition.

How to Stand out in the Field

You can help yourself stand out in this field by working part-time in a psychiatric environment while you are still in school. This can provide you with the work experience many employers look for and may help you secure your desired job after graduation. If you are working at the undergraduate level, you can also earn certification in psychiatric nursing to help boost your credentials as well (certification is required of graduate level nurses).

Develop Related Skills

Courses in effective communication can help you build skills in developing a strong rapport with patients and co-workers. Basic computer classes may assist you performing data entry and other related functions that are often required in this job. Additionally, it may be wise to take psychology classes (if studying at the undergraduate level) to gain a better understanding of this field, give you an edge with employers and to foster the needed compassion nurses should have to work with mentally ill people.

Alternative Career Paths

Registered Nurse in Other Fields

If becoming a nurse is your dream, but you're unsure if you'd enjoy working in a mental health residential environment, keep in mind that there are plenty of career options with a nursing degree. Registered nurses can work in many more medical settings, populations and have far more options for specializing than mental health nurses do. For example, neonatal nurses care for newborn babies in the postnatal or pediatric unit of hospitals and clinics. Critical care nurses look after people with serious injuries or illnesses in the intensive care unit of hospitals.

Like PMHNs, you are still responsible for duties such as medication administration, observing and documenting patient behavior and health stats and consulting with other healthcare professionals. As of May 2011, the BLS reported that registered nurses made an annual median salary of $66,000 and they share the same job availability that PMHNs do. However, as a registered nurse, you may also have to work 24-hour shifts, weekends and holidays.

Psychologist

On the other hand, if you are more interested in the psychological aspects of mental health nursing, but are put off by certain nursing duties (such as monitoring vital signs or changing bed sheets), you may find a psychology career to be more up your alley. Through observation and testing, you would study mental processes and human behavior. There are also many specialties within psychology, like industrial-organizational psychology, which utilizes psychological principles to improve work conditions. Forensic psychology involves working with legal professionals to advise them of the psychological aspects in court cases.

Job growth in this field is also good. The BLS reports an expected increase of 22% between 2010 and 2020. Psychologists' annual median income was $68,000 in May 2011. However, psychologists must have at least a master's degree to practice, and admission to graduate school is competitive. Additionally, like mental health nurses, psychologists sometimes have to deal with uncooperative and violent patients.

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