Qualifications for a Nurse to Work in a Psych Ward

by Ellie Williams

Nurses working in psychiatric wards treat patients with all types of mental health conditions. They administer medication, provide treatment and counseling, and work closely with both physicians and patients’ families. They must be skilled in patient assessment and possess in-depth understanding of mental disorders and their treatment and prognosis.


You can enter the psychiatric nursing field by obtaining a bachelor of science or associate degree in nursing, and by earning a registered nursing license. However, many facilities prefer psychiatric nurses to have at least a master’s degree and possibly a doctorate. Northeastern University, for example, offers a master of science in psychiatric mental health nursing. Many psychiatric nurses hold the title of advanced practice registered nurse, clinical nurse specialist or nurse practitioner, designations that require advanced degrees. You can also take elective courses in specific areas of psychiatric nursing, such as pediatric or geriatric mental health.


Nurses should have at least some experience in mental health before moving into a full-time psychiatric role. Those seeking advanced roles, such as a clinical nurse specialist or advanced practice nurse, pursue supervised post-graduate clinical practice. Many undergraduate nursing programs include psychiatric-mental health nursing as part of the required clinical rotation. For more intensive psychiatric training and experience, nursing students or recent graduates can complete internships in mental health and psychiatric nursing. The University of Texas Harris County Psychiatric Facility, for example, offers a psychiatric nursing internship for recent graduates.


Many psychiatric nurses earn certification in psychiatric nursing or in caring for specific patient populations, such as children or senior citizens. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers certification in psychiatric-mental health nursing. To qualify, nurses need a current registered nurse license; two years of full-time experience in nursing; at least 2,000 hours of clinical practice in psychiatric–mental health nursing within the preceding three years; and at least 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric–mental health nursing within the preceding three years.


Nurses need patience, compassion, and excellent communication and people skills when working in psychiatric wards. They work closely with psychiatrists, other physicians and other members of the health care team, so they must be team players. Because they often administer psychiatric medication, they must understand the effects of these drugs and how to monitor their effectiveness and potential side effects. In addition, nurses often educate patients’ families on their diagnosis, prognosis and the long-term management of their conditions, so they must be adept in teaching and communicating with patients and loved ones.

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