Why You Should Consider a Career in Mental Health Nursing

While discussing mental health has historically been taboo and stigmatized, today, mental health care is rightfully a critical component of holistic patient care. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately one in five adults (or 20%) of Americans (47 million) experienced mental illness. Since its start, the pandemic has exacerbated previous mental health issues and created new problems for those without any previous mental health problems. Experts believe the coronavirus will lead to a national suicide crisis, called "deaths of despair."

Nurses everywhere will need a heightened awareness of anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and suicide. As mental health becomes a component of holistic patient care, nurses with mental health knowledge will be in high demand for several years .

Why Is Mental Health Nursing More Crucial Than Ever?

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, one in ten adults (11%) reported anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms before the pandemic. However, numbers have risen sharply with 41% of adults now reporting symptoms. Widespread isolation; closure of workplaces, universities, schools; losses of income or jobs; bad health or loss of loved ones have created more worry and stress across communities, negatively impacting people's mental health.

Based on previous experience with disasters, the report notes that "the mental health impact outlasts the physical impact, suggesting today's mental health need will continue well beyond the coronavirus outbreak itself."

What Do Mental Health Nurses Do?

Mental health nurses provide comprehensive care to individuals, families, groups and communities with current or potential mental health needs. They are critical to identifying patients' signs and symptoms of mental health issues like anxiety and depression and then developing and implementing a care plan. Being a care coordinator or case manager is a major responsibility for most mental health nursing positions.  

Today, ideal care should focus on including mental health services with primary care through a mental health integrated care model. Often, a primary care provider or nurse leads the collaborative care team. This collaboration among primary care teams, mental health specialists and patients is to improve mental health services. It also aims to reduce the stigma of mental health issues, improve outcomes and decrease costs for patients.

What Are the Various Settings in Which Mental Health Nurses Work?

Nurses with mental health knowledge work in a variety of settings and with various patient populations including individuals, families, groups or communities.

  • Settings. Mental health nurses work in a wide variety of inpatient and outpatient work settings, either as a specialty position or in primary care. Some jobs include military care, private practice, clinics, community health centers, public health facilities, schools, substance abuse centers, public health facilities, behavioral health facilities, psychiatric private practice, senior centers, hospice, rehabilitation services, telehealth and case management.
  • Population. Some mental health nurse positions focus on individuals throughout the lifespan, while others concentrate on a specific age range, such as children or adolescents. They may also care for individuals during a particular timeframe. In addition, nurses can specialize in mental health nursing such as acute care, child and adolescent gerontological, substance abuse, disaster care, military mental health and many more.

What Are the Salary Expectations for Mental Health Nurses?

The salary for a mental health nurse varies drastically depending on years of experience, level of education, size of the organization and geographic location. According to Indeed, a registered mental health nurse's average salary is $151,450, which considers all states' positions. Jobs within the U.S. Veterans Health Administration often pay even more.

While roles such as mental health nurse, psychiatric nurse and behavioral health nurse are some of the most popular, there is also a great need for psychiatric nurse practitioners or mental health clinical nurse specialists.

How Can Mental Health Nurses Promote Positive Long-Term Health Outcomes for Patients?   

Nurses can integrate mental health promotion and prevention into their daily work in the following ways:

  • Look for teachable and learning moments to promote mental health and prevent illness.
  • Assess for risk factors such as drinking above safe limits, drug use, high-stress levels, anxiety or depression.
  • Encourage healthy behaviors in your patients and for yourself.
  • Be a role model with physical exercise, good nutrition, outdoor time, volunteering and building relationships.

Health promotion and prevention with early recognition and intervention is the key to helping patients with mental illness. Intervention in childhood and adolescence may prevent mental health issues in adults. In addition, people with medical problems are more likely to have mental health problems due to the impact of physical illness on mental and social factors. Therefore, a significant goal of primary care is to improve patients' overall mental health by making care more proactive and less reactive.

Mental health nurses are in high demand due to the number of people who need services and the national shortage of primary care providers and psychiatrists. Because mental health services are increasingly applicable to other areas of care, nurses in all positions can benefit from mental health care knowledge.  

Learn more about the University of New Mexico's RN to BSN online program.

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