Nurse practitioners specializing in psychiatric, mental health, and substance abuse care across Washington serve an essential role in the health of our communities. But what do they do?

Graphic by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Graphic by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

As one of the most trusted professions in the world, nurses in these positions help meet the needs of individuals suffering from mental illness or addiction through quality assessment and treatment.

What is an ARNP?

An advanced registered nurse practitioner (ARNP), also known as a nurse practitioner (NP) or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), is a nurse with a graduate degree in advanced practice nursing.

ARNPs in Washington State have full practice authority, which authorizes them to practice to the extent of their level of education, training, and licensure. This means ARNPs can practice without physician oversite and prescribe medication and treatment. ARNPs can serve as primary care providers and hold private practices. As such, ARNPs create care plans, order and interpret diagnostic tests, write referrals, diagnose patients, and prescribe therapies, the use of medical equipment, and medicines.

What is a PMHNP?

A psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) is a nurse practitioner with additional education and certification in psychiatric and mental health assessment, diagnoses, and treatment, including substance use disorders.

What is a CNS?

In the state of Washington, a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an ARNP holding a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing and full practice authority. However, CNSs are also expert clinicians with certification in a specific area of care–such as psychiatric or rehabilitation. Although CNSs can run a private practice and serve as primary care providers, more frequently, they fill leadership roles within health care institutions where they provide authority and support to staff nurses providing bedside care to patients.

CNSs are integral to improving health care delivery because of their skills in evaluating, designing, implementing, and assessing process change using evidence-based care and best practices.

Serious Mental Health by the Numbers

Graphic used with permission by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

The Compound Effects of COVID-19 on Mental Health

Graphics used with permission by Tatiana Sadak PhD, PMHNP, ARNP, RN, presentation slides, “Mental Health and Physical Distancing During a Pandemic” 

Washington’s ARNP workforce

The UW Center for Health Workforce Studies and the Washington Center for Nursing released a report in March of 2020, Washington State’s 2019 Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner Workforce. According to this report, as of May 31, 2019, there were approximately 4,807 NPs and 75 CNSs practicing in Washington State. Unfortunately, the data did not break down the specialties of these licensees, so the exact number working in mental health care is not known. However, a 2018 Washington State Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner Survey Data Report recorded 12.7% of the survey respondence certified as psychiatric-mental health NPs or CNSs.

Washington needs more ARNPs and CNSs specializing in psychiatric, mental health, and substance abuse treatment to meet the need

According to a 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 4.4% of adults living in Washington suffer from a serious mental illness (SMI). That is the equivalent of approximately 238,000 adults. Add in youths with SMI and those suffering from substance abuse problems, and this number is much higher.

Considering a career as a mental health nurse professional?

ARNPs, PMHNPs, and CNSs are considered advanced nursing roles and require a master’s or doctoral degree for practice. (click here to learn more about getting started in a career nursing).

In Washington state, there are six schools that offer advanced nursing degrees:

Department of Nursing
502 E. Boone Ave. AD Box 38
Spokane, WA 99258
Phone: 800-986-9585

Pacific Lutheran University
School of Nursing
12180 Park Avenue S.
Tacoma, WA 98447
Phone: 253-535-7411

Seattle University
School of Nursing
900 Broadway
Seattle. WA 98122
Phone: 206-296-6000

Seattle Pacific University
School of Health Sciences
3307 3rd Avenue West
Seattle, WA 98119
Phone: 206-296-6000

University of Washington
UW School of Nursing
Box 357260
Seattle, WA 98195-7260
Phone: 206-543-8736

Washington State University
College of Nursing
P.O. Box 1495
Spokane, WA 99210-1495
Phone: 509-324-7360

Advanced practice nurses have the potential to fill critical care gaps for people living with mental health disorders or substance addiction. Meeting those needs means improving lives, families, and communities across the state. The work they do is vital to a healthier Washington.

To learn more about careers in nursing, Washington’s nursing workforce, or WCN, please explore our website.

Additional resource:

The American Association of Nurse Practitioner

American Psychiatric Nurses Association

Expanding Mental Health Care Services in America: The Pivotal Role of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists

Read The Seattle Times WCN article, Mental health nursing: A rewarding career

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