While the stigma is steadily decreasing in some communities, mental health in the US continues to be an underdiscussed issue. People across the country struggle with their mental health. Most tellingly, these issues are not relegated to a single community or group, though they are more common in some than others. There is a distinct lack of mental health care professionals available to respond to the needs of the rising pool of patients – however, there is some hope on the horizon. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are a critical component of the healthcare system. These professionals are well-versed in diagnosing and treating both acute and chronic conditions.
In this article, we take a look at the rising mental health crisis in the US and how psychiatric nurse practitioners contribute toward combating it.
Mental health statistics
How is a mental illness defined? The term ‘mental illness’ is typically defined as a behavioral, emotional or mental disorder, particularly one that impacts the patient’s life (but not necessarily). This includes a wide variety of conditions that encompass varying levels of severity. More serious mental illnesses include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, among others, and are typically defined as behavioral, emotional or mental disorders that result in serious impairment in the patient’s everyday life.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there were roughly 57 million adults living with mental illness in 2021. This translates to roughly one in five adults. Among these adults, women were more likely to experience mental illness than men, with 27% to 18% respectively. Young adults – adults between the ages of 18 and 25 – were the most likely to report mental health issues, with roughly 33% of all reported cases. In addition, approximately 5% of all American adults reported serious mental illnesses. This translates to roughly 14 million people! Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that more than 50% of the US population will experience a mental health disorder or illness at some point in their lives.
In addition to the above, instances of mental illness are rising across the country, according to the CDC. More specifically, around 41% of adults reported struggling with mental illness in 2021, compared with roughly 36% in the years prior. Anxiety and depressive disorders, in particular, increased in number. Children and adolescents are not excluded from this problem either, though our statistics focus primarily on adult patients. The National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement, for example, which serves as a supplement to the report cited above, found that nearly 50% of adolescents reported some kind of mental disorder, with nearly a quarter of them (22%) reporting severe distress and/or impairment.
What does all of this tell us? These statistics tell us that mental health is a significant issue in the US. The number of adults living with a reported mental illness continues to rise year by year, and the pool of patients in need of psychiatric care increases proportionately. Unfortunately, the number of psychiatrists available to help these patients does not.
Dwindling numbers of psychiatrists
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the US was in dire need of additional psychiatrists even before incidents of reported mental illness increased. Within a few years, America will be short between roughly 14,000 and 31,000 psychiatrists. This number is concerning for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that approximately 150 million Americans already live in areas described by the federal government as “mental health professional shortage” areas. The need for mental health care professionals is projected to only increase over time, with patients in rural areas experiencing this loss acutely.
There are a few reasons why the number of psychiatrists in the country is falling. First, roughly 60% of all psychiatrists are 55 years of age or older. Retirement drain is an incredibly real phenomenon affecting the industry. You might expect the number of training psychiatrists to increase proportionally with this loss, but that is not the case. In fact, there simply isn’t enough residency to train aspiring psychiatrists.
It is unlikely that the US will see a significant climb in the number of psychiatrists anytime soon, and the demand for alternative mental health professionals is climbing as time passes.
The rise of psychiatric nurse practitioners
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are trained to work with patients (typically of all ages) struggling with mental health issues. More specifically, they are qualified to assess, diagnose and evaluate patients and to create treatment plans. Their duties include the following:
- Diagnosing mental illness.
- Examining patients.
- Carrying out mental health assessments.
- Educating the patient and their family about mental health needs.
- Creating treatment plans and prescribing medications (if necessary).
- Working with other healthcare professionals to treat the patient’s other healthcare concerns.
- Conducting psychotherapy sessions.
In short, psychiatric nurse practitioners do some of the same things that licensed psychiatrists do. The difference is that psychiatric nurse practitioners are much more readily available than their physician counterparts, making it easier for patients to receive the mental health care they deserve.
You may be wondering what makes psychiatric nurse practitioners different from family nurse practitioners. The question is understandable, especially as some family nurse practitioners are trained to assess and treat simple mental health issues. The difference lies in the main focus of the professional at hand.
Family nurse practitioners are focused primarily on the general health and overall wellbeing of their patients at any stage of life. This sometimes includes mental health care, but not necessarily. Psychiatric nurse practitioners, on the other hand, are trained specifically to address mental health care. They might coordinate with additional physicians to help ensure their patient’s overall wellbeing, but their primary focus is on mental health. Consider family nurse practitioners to be primary care providers, while psychiatric nurse practitioners possess more specialized knowledge.
This is not to say that family nurse practitioners and psychiatric nurse practitioners never overlap. On the contrary, effective providers can work closely with each other to treat other aspects of a patient’s health. Mental illness typically presents with additional conditions, also known as comorbid (co-occurring) issues. These comorbidities often lead to non-mental-health-related health complications that could potentially lower the patient’s life expectancy and lead to a lower quality of life. Psychiatric nurse practitioners must be able to interact with family nurse practitioners to help improve their patients’ overall wellbeing, which typically has a positive impact on their mental health (and vice versa).
How do psychiatric nurse practitioners help address mental illness concerns?
There are many ways that psychiatric nurses help address the rising mental illness concerns in their communities. Let’s look at just some of the ways that these professionals have positive impacts on not only the lives of patients living near them but also those stretched across the state.
- More time and similar outcomes
Nurse practitioners typically have more time to see patients than physicians. Patients who otherwise feel rushed through an appointment with a busy doctor might have better luck with a nurse practitioner who can hear their concerns fully. Nurse practitioners are able to help many different patients with wildly disparate needs, while providing tailored care that helps patients feel secure in the quality of care they receive.
Some people might wonder if nurse practitioners are as effective as medical doctors, and the answer is a hearty yes! One study, conducted over 19 years, included a wide variety of published literature. The researchers’ goal was specifically to evaluate the effectiveness, safety and quality of care provided by nurse practitioners with master’s degrees. They found that patient outcomes from nurse practitioners operating independently were similar to those working with medical doctors alone. Nurse practitioners often offer the same quality of care as physicians, in other words, and this is just as true in mental health as it is in physical health.
- Telehealth care
Nurse practitioners help not only their local communities, but also the broader public by offering telehealth services. This allows patients without the means to leave their homes, as well as those who live in areas without any mental health providers, to receive qualified care. We mentioned above that millions of people already live in areas without any psychiatrists, for example, which leaves them no care options locally. In the past, these people would have lived without receiving treatment for their mental health care concerns. Today, they can often reach a psychiatric nurse practitioner online or via the telephone to meet those needs.
In addition to helping patients who might otherwise not reach a psychiatric care provider, nurse practitioners can see more patients online than they would in person. This not only streamlines the care process, but also allows them to see more patients on any given day. The number of people helped by their advanced knowledge is greatly increased as a result.
- Keeping community-specific needs in mind
As we’ve described above, psychiatric nurse practitioners do not have to be from a community local to their patients to make a difference. Those working within their local communities often have advanced insight into the mental health struggles of those they serve. They can detect trends and barriers to diagnosis and treatment, both of which are critical when it comes to serving patients who might not believe that mental illness is something that they are experiencing.
A community where there is open and honest communication about mental health needs will have much different reactions to treatment suggestions from one where mental health is often swept under the rug or denied completely. Each of them has their own needs, but one of them requires more ‘insider’ knowledge than the other to effectively treat patients experiencing mental illness. Because they spend more time with patients than psychiatrists or other medical doctors tend to, psychiatric nurse practitioners have a better insight into treatment approaches.
Things to consider before becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner
Psychiatric nurse practitioners are an incredibly important part of the healthcare system. As we’ve outlined above, they fill a critically needed role in communities across the country. From creating treatment plans for ‘routine’ mental health conditions to working closely with professionals across different specialties to provide patients with ideal care, they make a huge difference in the lives of their patients.
With that said, there are a few things to consider before you pursue an education in psychiatric nursing.
- State regulations
Make sure that you understand your state’s rules regarding psychiatric nurse practitioners and how they are allowed to provide care. Not all states allow them to prescribe medication, for example, while others give them many of the same responsibilities as licensed psychiatrists.
- Education requirements
Next, you should know the licensing requirements and educational requirements that psychiatric nurse practitioners must meet in order to practice. Different states have different regulations, so it is essential to do your own reading.
Once you have secured the knowledge above, you are ready to start studying!
How can i become a psychiatric nurse practitioner?
The first step to becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner is to pick an accredited nursing program at a well-respected school. Start by earning an ADN or ASN, and then move on to more advanced practice. A quality online program such as the one offered by Spring Arbor University is a good choice. Note that you can expect to spend a significant amount of time in school and that your work is not done once you have earned a nursing degree. On the contrary, those years are simply foundational to the work you will complete to become a nurse practitioner, more broadly, and a psychiatric nurse practitioner, specifically.
As a psychiatric nurse practitioner, you will be helping thousands of people manage their mental health and live happy and healthy lives and have the opportunity to make a lasting positive impact on their futures.
What do you think about the rise of psychiatric nurse practitioners and their role in the healthcare system in the US? If you are interested in joining their ranks, keep the information above in mind and get started on your journey today!