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More psychiatric nurses are needed to fill mental health care gaps

Advocates in the health care industry say the estimated 37,000 psychiatric nurses in the U.S. is barely enough to address patients' needs.
More psychiatric nurses are needed to fill mental health care gaps
Posted at 12:37 PM, Apr 25, 2023

As the country has emerged from the pandemic, there is a growing need for psychiatric nurse practitioners nationwide, as communities and health care groups search for ways to help patients dealing with mental health crises.

"We're seeing greater use of mental health nurse practitioners," said Carmen Portillo, who serves as the executive deputy dean of Yale's School of Nursing.

Psychiatric nurses provide mental health care to patients, often filling the gaps when someone can't find a psychiatrist or psychologist. Psychiatric nurses can diagnose and even treat things like anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

There are an estimated 37,000 psychiatric nurses in the U.S. Advocates in the industry say that is barely enough given the needs these nurses are addressing.

"When we experience a mental health crisis, when you start looking for help — that's when it really hits home," explained Chizimuzo Okoli, who serves as the president of the Psychiatric Nurses Association.

He says to attract more psychiatric nurses to the field, states need to consider expanding loan forgiveness programs. Colorado recently announced it would be offering $14,000 sign-on bonuses for mental health nurses.

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"This becomes an important opportunity for nurses to step in and meet these needs and shortages," Okoli explained.

The impacts these kinds of shortages have are often disproportionate, depending on where someone lives. An estimated 157 million Americans live in areas where there is a shortage of mental health care professionals. A staggering 80% of rural counties have no practicing psychiatrists.

"I feel for individuals who live in rural areas, where there are mental health deserts and you have to drive miles to see a provider," said Portillo.

At Yale, they have expanded their psychiatric nurse training to include an online degree program. It targets nurses already working in smaller, rural communities nationwide and gives them the chance to earn a Yale degree, without having to travel to the university in New Haven, Connecticut.

The hope is to get more psychiatric nurses trained and deployed to communities nationwide at a time when they are desperately needed.

"We were going to figure out a way to provide the same quality program to wherever those students are working," Portillo said.

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