What do Behavioral Health nurses do?

Chris O'Brien received her BSN from Auburn University and her Master's in Public Health degree from Emory University. With a background in cardiac care, home health, nursing research & education, and medical writing, she now enjoys the dual paths of being a freelance medical writer and yoga teacher in Decatur, GA.

The American Psychiatric Nursing Association defines psychiatric mental health nursing as "health and wellness promotion through identification of mental health issues, prevention of mental health problems and the care and treatment of persons with psychiatric disorders."

I asked Anita Hufft, PhD, RN, and Dean of the College of Nursing at Valdosta State University a few questions to learn more from an expert in this growing nursing specialty. Her answers are below.

What's great about working as behavioral health nurse?

I enjoy working with people and developing a relationship, helping them to see themselves and the world in a better way, adapt to those around them and feel cared for, important, useful and worthy. I also like the intellectual demands of analyzing behavior, motivation behind the behavior, and ways to change that behavior.

What are the drawbacks?

The biggest drawback is not having enough colleagues with sufficient preparation to make significant impact on client populations.

Where do behavioral health nurses work?

They work in acute care settings in emergency rooms and in medical surgical units with clients experiencing behavioral health crises - as liaisons. They also work in inpatient psychiatric hospitals, substance abuse treatment settings, residential facilities for developmentally delayed and mentally disabled, community based shelters, clinics and offices, and in collaboration with other health care providers as part of a setting for integrated primary and mental health care. In addition, they work with legislators, as educators, and in private practice.

What specific skills and traits do behavioral nurses need?

Dr. Hufft suggests these five traits to form the foundation:

  • 1. Good communication and relationship skills
  • 2. Ability to set boundaries, hold confidences, establish and maintain trust
  • 3. Social maturity, emotional stability, self confidence, and awareness of self along with sound and consistent ability to problem solve, manage stress and anxiety, and ask for help when needed.
  • 4. Positive attitude toward clients with mental illness and other behavioral health problems
  • 5. Sufficient and appropriate assertiveness and professional acuity to manage the work environment in order to make it successful and prevent burnout and feelings of stress, isolation and/or frustration

Education and training help students to develop into qualified psychiatric nurses. Specialized skills for assessment of mental health include management of a milieu (physical and social setting), the ability to analyze and manage interactions of individuals and groups, and excellent psychiatric and pharmacological knowledge.

What kind of education/certification is required?

There are four levels according to Dr. Hufft:

  • 1. Basic level of psychiatric mental health nurse - RN license - RNs practice psychiatric mental health nursing with individuals in varied settings and occupy a number of roles, such as case managers, staff nurses, and nurse managers.
  • 2. Basic level certified mental health registered nurse - this level requires a minimum of a BSN degree, past work experience and continuing professional education/development in the chosen specialty. Certification also involves attaining professional standards of information and experience in the concentration and passing a specialty test, documenting a minimum of hours supervised working in the specialty.
  • 3. Advance Practice Registered Nurse - Psychiatric Mental Health - this level requires a minimum of a master's degree in psychiatric nursing - the APRN-PMH applies skills and education to convoluted mental health issues. The term APRN-PMH can apply to the nurse practitioner or the clinical nurse specialist and both must meet specialized criteria (pass a test, document supervised clinical hours in the role, etc.).
  • 4. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse - Psychiatric Mental Health - Certified Specialist - this title indicates a board certified advanced practice in the concentration by either a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse specialist. In addition, nurses at this level may be able for prescribe drugs to patients, have inpatient admission privileges, receive third party reimbursement, and other specialty privileges.

How do the job prospects look for the next several years?

Job prospects in all areas of nursing should be good as long as the health care system and the economy are positioned to value and support mental health care. The need for psychiatric and mental health care far exceeds the supply of health care providers, especially in the area of nursing. Are more jobs likely to be created? Yes - especially in the area of advanced practice.

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