Key Takeaways

  • Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners are both highly trained medical providers who are qualified to prescribe medication and provide psychotherapy.
  • The primary difference between psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners is their education. Training typically takes 12 years for psychiatrists and 6 to 7 years for psychiatric nurse practitioners.
  • Due to an increased demand for mental health services and a shortage of psychiatrists, more and more patients are working with psychiatric nurse practitioners. 

There are several factors to consider when looking for a mental health provider. Ideally, you want someone who’s accepting new patients, has experience helping people with similar needs, and who takes your insurance (if applicable). If you think you might benefit from medication, you’ll want to focus on psychiatric providers rather than therapists.

So what happens if you find a great psychiatric provider who has the title “psychiatric nurse practitioner”? Rest assured that you’re in qualified hands with either a psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD or DO) who’s trained to diagnose and treat mental illness. Psychiatrists are qualified to handle both the mental and physical aspects of mental health conditions. They treat conditions like depression, anxiety, trauma, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. They can prescribe medication, provide psychotherapy, and manage treatment plans.

Psychiatrists must attend medical school, similar to all physicians. After medical school, they complete a four-year residency program focused on psychiatry. Here, they have an opportunity to explore sub-specialties like medicine for substance use issues, child and adolescent psychiatry, and geriatric psychiatry. 

What is a psychiatric nurse practitioner?

A psychiatric nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who specializes in mental health. Also known as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP), their role is to assess, diagnose, and treat a person’s mental health conditions. They’re also qualified to prescribe medication and provide psychotherapy — just like a psychiatrist. 

Most psychiatric nurse practitioners begin their journey by earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). From there, registered nurses (RN) will often spend a few years gaining hands-on nursing experience before earning an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree or doctorate in psychiatric nursing. 

Psychiatrist vs. psychiatric nurse practitioner: similarities and differences

There are significant similarities between psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners. Both are highly-trained mental health experts who are qualified to:

  • Assess and diagnose mental health disorders
  • Create and monitor treatment plans
  • Offer psychotherapy
  • Prescribe medication
  • Collaborate with therapists and other clinicians if appropriate for a patient’s needs
  • Refer patients out to other types of providers (like therapists) 

That said, there are a few notable differences between the two types of providers — specifically around education and scope of practice in certain states. 

Education

Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners are qualified to provide the highest level of mental health services. Psychiatrists typically take 12 years to complete their education and training, while psychiatric nurse practitioners usually spend 6 to 7 years. Both career paths require rigorous academic and real-world training but result in different credentials. 

Autonomy 

Professional autonomy is the “authority to make decisions and the freedom to act in accordance with one’s professional knowledge base.” Psychiatrists are eligible to practice with autonomy anywhere in the U.S., but the same can’t be said for psychiatric nurse practitioners. 

Restrictions vary state to state, with 24 states plus the District of Columbia allowing psychiatric nurse practitioners to practice without physician oversight. Psychiatric nurse practitioners in the remaining states can still treat patients but do so with restricted or reduced practice. For example, they may need their collaborating physician to sign off on prescriptions. 

When to see a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner

Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners are both a good fit for people who are:

  • Living with mental health symptoms that impact their ability to function on a daily basis 
  • Diagnosed with a mental health condition that’s known to be responsive to medication, such as depression or anxiety
  • Interested in taking medication to treat their mental health issues 
  • Taking medications for their mental health but aren’t seeing improvements
  • Consistently engaging in therapy but aren’t seeing improvements

 

Deciding between a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner often comes down to personal preference and provider availability.

  • Speciality: Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners may choose to focus on a certain demographic, such as people with substance use issues, eating disorders, or patients within certain age groups. Some people prefer to find a provider with experience helping patients with similar needs.
  • Prescribing philosophy: Both psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners are qualified to prescribe medication (unlike therapists). If you think that you’ll benefit from medication, ask about a provider’s prescribing practice to understand if their treatment philosophy speaks to you. 
  • Availability: As you may know from personal experience, it can be difficult to find a psychiatrist who is in-network and accepting new patients. Between a national shortage of psychiatrists and an increased demand for mental health services, some people prefer to work with psychiatric nurse practitioners if they have availability to offer services.  

What conditions do psychiatric providers treat?

Both psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners undergo training to diagnose and treat a wide range of mental and behavioral health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance use disorders

 

Find a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Rula 

Whether you’re seeking professional support for the first time or you’re looking for new ways to manage your condition, Rula is here to support you. 

We believe in a human-centric approach which means that everything we do starts with listening. Our team of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and therapists are available to listen to your story, evaluate your needs, and build a personalized mental health care plan. Plus, we make it easy to find a licensed psychiatric provider who is in network with your insurance and accepting new clients.

 

Schedule a call today to take the first step toward feeling better.

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