Pandemic drives increased demand for nurses in behavioral health

While it’s important to take care of your physical body, many people often forget to take care of their mind.

Are you a nurse who is passionate about mental health care and the field of psychiatry? If you are experienced in behavioral health, or interested in a career in mental health, you are needed now.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the demand for psychiatric care, which has exceeded crisis levels, according to industry experts. A recent report in StatNews revealed that some centers are seeing behavioral health calls increase by 40-50% during the pandemic. Adding further stress to the crisis is an increase in burn-out and mental health challenges among health care workers themselves, which ABC News recently covered as an “urgent mental health crisis.”

What are the career options for nurses in psychiatry and mental health? Nursing jobs in behavioral health are available in both inpatient and outpatient settings, and across a range of experience and education levels.

“Nurses choosing to work in psychiatric care are required to be a licensed nurse or licensed vocational/practical nurse,” said Catherine Burger, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC. “Some LPN programs also include a dual program for psychiatric technician, which is more focused skilled training for managing patients with mental health disorders. Qualified registered nurses can obtain board certification in psychiatric nursing, and advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners, can specialize in psychiatric nursing,” she adeds.

Burger is an experienced practice leader for nurses in the mental health arena, including hiring and education, and works for as their media and brand specialist.

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, one nursing role that is in particularly high demand is the psychiatry mental health nurse practitioner. This is an advanced practice nursing role that is one of the highest paying nursing careers in psychiatry, as well as extremely demanding. Therefore, it might not be the right fit for everyone.

While challenges are many for nurses providing behavioral health care, “the pros of working in mental health are the immediate rewards one can have for helping someone through crisis,” Burger said.

“Nurses who choose to work in mental health tend to be very empathetic, patient and have a deep desire to help people navigate the messiness of life,” she said, adding that the challenges of working as a nurse in mental health care include “the energy it takes to draw patients from their darkness. It is both mentally and physically demanding at times and, based on the level of aggression from patients, can be a dangerous line of work.”

Burger advises prospective psychiatric nurses to have “a strong support system and network of their own, such as a counselor. Caring for the mentally ill can be emotionally draining, and you need to be able to offload those emotions in a healthy manner. Don’t be afraid to set strong boundaries with your patients but know how to stay open and connected with your family and friends.”

In addition to a strong support system, what else do nurses need to be successful in the field of psychiatry? In her experience, Burger said, valuable skills for nurses in mental health care include empathetic listening skills and the ability to set boundaries. Available certifications sought by employers include psychiatric-mental health certification for RNs and NP psychiatric-mental health certification.

Job functions for a psychiatric nurse vary by practice setting, patient mix and volume of patients. Employers of psychiatric nurses include medical offices, hospitals, addiction/rehab centers, prison systems, schools, public health, government and more — from inpatient psychiatric facilities to emergency departments to doctor’s offices and specialized clinics, including federally qualified health centers.

“Many psychiatric trained nurses work in pain management clinics, as the behavioral aspect of chronic pain is just as important and the physical challenges,” Burger added. “Most state-run governmental institutions employ psychiatric trained nurses, too.”

Outpatient psychiatric nurses may see patients in an office setting to review efficacy of medications and any side effects they may be experiencing, as well as administer long-acting injectable medications. Psychiatric nurses in the inpatient setting may administer medications, develop treatment and care plans along with the medical team, and lead group discussions. Psychiatric nurse practitioners provide behavioral therapy and prescribe medications.

Compensation for nurses in psychiatry and mental health care varies by experience and education, with advanced practice nurses and RNs typically earning more than vocational nurses, as is the case in most nursing specialties. The growing demand for health professionals in psychiatry has been driving up compensation for nurses in behavioral health. As of this March, reported the average salary for psychiatry nurses is $76,525 annually. Additionally, psychiatry is the second-highest paying specialty for nurse practitioners, according to, which reports that psychiatry NPs earn an average of $139,976 annually, second only to nurse anesthetists.