How Long Must You Go to School to Be a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?

by Beth Greenwood

Nurse practitioners specialize in a variety of areas, one of which is psychiatric or mental health nursing. Three percent of NPs specialize in mental health, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. As an advanced practice nurse, the mental health nurse practitioner provides therapy to and prescribes medications for patients with mental and behavioral health disorders. MHNPs may spend close to a decade in school.

Start at the Beginning

Before a nurse can move into advanced practice, she must complete her basic education and obtain a license. All registered nurses take the same NCLEX-RN licensing exam, but they may qualify for the exam with an associate degree, a nursing diploma or a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The typical lengths of the programs are two years for an associate degree, two or three years for a nursing diploma, and four years for a bachelor's degree. However, some programs might have prerequisites that must be completed prior to entry. This is especially true in the associate degree program, which may add another 6 to 12 months.

The Bachelor's Degree

Nurses who begin their careers with an associate degree or diploma will need to go back to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing, which is required for the next step -- a master’s degree. If the nurse graduated from a diploma or associate degree program that did not have a transfer arrangement with a university, she might need to start over in a bachelor’s degree program. Some schools have accelerated programs that can help her progress more quickly through the process. Depending on her previous educational status and the program she chooses, she might be able to complete her bachelor’s degree in two years of full-time attendance.

The Master's Degree

All advanced practice nurses are required to have a minimum of a master’s degree. Many nurses don’t go straight on from a bachelor’s program to a master’s program, as they choose to gain some professional experience first. Once the nurse goes back to school she might not be able to attend classes full-time. A nurse who is able to complete all of her education with full-time attendance in one continuous program could have a master’s degree as an MHNP within six years. For many nurses, however, it will take several years of part-time or full-time work and part-time attendance in a master’s program.

Beyond the MSN

The master’s degree is not the final step for nurses who will be graduating in or after 2015. Although the state practice requirements stop at the master’s level, the America Association of Colleges of Nursing has set 2015 as the year in which all colleges of nursing must grant a doctorate in advanced practice nursing. Master’s programs will be phased out by that year. MHNPs who set their sights on a doctorate and go to school full-time could complete the process of bachelors, masters and doctorate within eight years, but are likely to take longer, as many NPs go back to school after they gain experience and attend school part-time.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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