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Life of a Behavioral Health Nurse

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Representations of nurses in the media often show these healthcare professionals tackling rare cases affecting the body. We’ve all seen a couple of episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” right?

But what we don’t often see is nurses treating mental health conditions despite the fact that  it’s an essential part of nursing practice. You may have seen many patients and their families struggle to sometimes accept the situation they are in. They’re already undergoing treatment, experiencing excruciating pain and trying to make peace with their conditions, but their mental health takes a toll. This is where behavioral health nurses come into play, although this isn’t the only nursing role focused on providing mental health services. Behavioral health nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists in behavioral health, substance abuse nurses and others focus on healing the mind. 

If you’re fascinated by matters of the mind and looking for your way into the field of nursing, a career in behavioral nursing may be for you. We encourage you to follow that instinct. Mental health affects physical health and vice versa, and we can’t stress the importance of either enough.Ready to learn how you can positively impact a patient’s mental health? Here’s everything you need to know. 

What is a behavioral nurse?

Behavioral nurses promote wellness by preventing, identifying and treating mental health conditions in patients. They consider behaviors and the impulses behind them and help patients change. They also help patients feel seen, important and worthy.


What does the job of a behavioral nurse look like?

As medical professionals, how do behavioral nurses work to alleviate mental health conditions? Here are a few ways they deliver quality patient care:

  • Assessing patient progress
  • Facilitating therapy sessions
  • Giving patients coping tools 
  • Administering psychotropic medications
  • Helping patients with self-care
  • Providing educational information on mental illness 
  • Promoting well-being and good overall health 
  • Suggesting conditions and environments conducive to a patient’s mental health 
  • Working with other medical professionals on case management, and implementing a care plan 
  • Educating family members on a patient’s conditions 
  • Intervening in moments of crisis 
  • Providing community education 

Behavioral health nurses work with patients suffering from various mental health issues like:

  • Substance use disorders 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Trauma
  • Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • PTSD

It’s important to remember that behavioral nurses aren’t psychologists or psychiatrists, and while these nurses care for patients and assist in implementing a care plan, they don’t provide direct treatment as a physician would. 

What does it take to become a behavioral nurse?

If your interest is piqued, there are a few questions to ask yourself first. Some are personal, like “Am I cut out for this type of work?” and “What kind of education do I need to fulfill this role?” Let’s look at the personal and educational requirements that’ll set you up for success:

Soft skills

Psychiatric nurses must be able to work—or even thrive—under pressure. You’ll often deal with stressful situations, and you must maintain a level head. You must demonstrate empathy and compassion, even with demanding patients. And you’ll have to think critically to come at each patient’s unique case differently. 

You must also be able to take care of your mental health. Nowadays, many nurses—in all specialty areas—are at risk of burnout, compassion fatigue and depression. In a behavioral health role, you’ll have to stay as mentally healthy as possible to maintain the compassion, attention and patience you need for your job. 


You’ll have to hit the books before becoming a behavioral nurse, studying all body parts—not just the mind. Here’s what you can expect out of your nursing education:

  1. Earn your degree: All nurses must earn a degree from an accredited nursing program. There are two standard tracks: the Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Either of these degrees will serve you well in your career as a behavioral nurse, but we recommend getting a bachelor’s degree if you plan to take on an advanced practice nursing role later, like a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP), as a BSN is a prerequisite for postgraduate studies like a master’s degree. 
  2. Get your RN license: Ace your National Council Licensure Examination Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN), and apply for licensure from your state. Once you get your license, you can begin to practice as a behavioral health registered nurse. 
  3. Get clinical experience: Work as an RN for two years. You’ll need to show 2,000 clinical hours before applying for certification, and this hands-on care experience is invaluable to learning your craft. 
  4. Apply for certification: Sit for the competency-based psychiatric-mental health exam conducted by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), and receive your Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHN-BC) credential, which you’ll need to renew every five years.

Where does a behavioral health nurse work?


One of the best parts about nursing as a career—besides being able to help others every day—is that nurses have many options on how, when and where to work. There are more than 100 nursing specialty areas, various shift scheduling options and countless workplaces. Nurses work everywhere, from hospitals to their own homes. Here are some of the environments where you’ll find behavioral health nurses:  

  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Substance abuse treatment clinics
  • Residential treatment facilities
  • Public and private clinics
  • Private practices
  • Community health centers 
  • Correctional facilities 
  • Assisted living facilities 

Behavioral health nurse job outlook

Whether you become a behavioral nurse or any other type of RN, we have some good news. The job outlook is positive. All nursing careers are experiencing a 9% annual growth rate. And  there’s probably another data point you’ll scan a behavioral health nurse job description for: the salary. 

So what’s the money like? The annual behavioral health nurse salary for full-time roles, according to sites like ZipRecruiter and Salary.com, is around $80,000. This number is slightly higher than the average for generalized RN roles. 

Wrapping up

As a behavioral health nurse, you must be taking care of a lot of patients, which can ultimately impact your mental health. So don’t forget to take care of yourself. The truth is, it’s the only way you can do your job well. Keep these self-care tips handy to set yourself up for success.

We’ll also do our best to support you and keep you feeling good by outfitting you with the most comfortable scrubs made with premium-quality fabrics and providing you with the information you need to feel motivated.

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