“My new insurance company rep said there was a long wait to see a psychiatrist,” said Donna. “When she asked if I’d consider seeing a nurse practitioner instead, I was surprised. But the rep said, ‘This professional has twenty years of psychiatric experience.’ I wanted to know, ‘What exactly is a nurse practitioner and is this a good choice for me?’”
NPs are advanced practice nurses who provide healthcare services similar to those of a doctor. They focus on illness prevention, health education and counseling. They can prescribe medications, in varying degrees, in all 50 states.
Almost three percent of NPs are psychiatric specialists, although some have multiple specialties, said Mary Jo Goolsby, EdD, MSN, NP-C, FAANP, Director of Research and Education, American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. They practice in clinics, hospitals, private practice, nursing homes and public health departments.
“In many states, NPs work in collaboration with a psychiatrist,” said Patricia Hentz, clinical specialist, PMH-NP (psychiatric mental health practitioner). For a very complex case, she said, she would consult with a physician before prescribing medication. And, in the event a patient required hospitalization, a patient would probably be seen there by a hospital staff doctor. More and more people are choosing NPs as their primary, acute and/or specialty healthcare provider. Almost 600 million visits are made to NPs each year.
How are they different from a psychiatrist or therapist?
“Nurse practitioners take a more holistic approach, rather than a disease orientation,” said Goolsby. “They spend more time talking to their patients, engaging them as partners in their care, and educating them.
NPs are registered nurses with advanced education and clinical training. They have, on average, ten years of experience before completing a practitioner program with a masters or doctor of nursing, said Goolsby. NPs are licensed in all states and the District of Columbia. Most NPs are certified in their specialty area, including psychiatric/mental health.
What are the benefits of using an NP for my mental health care?
Nurse practitioners’ services cost less than those of a psychiatrist and their services are more comprehensive than those of a therapist.
“We have an understanding of biology that a psychologist or social worker probably doesn’t have,” said Hentz. “A nurse practitioner will monitor medical symptoms more closely than most therapists would, watching out, for instance, for side effects.”
“NPs are trained to recognize what is a physical condition and what is a psychological condition,” said Hentz. “Because they treat the whole patient, they may be more likely to discover drug interactions.
"I once treated a patient who showed symptoms of bipolar mania. Then I discovered she had been prescribed steroids by her primary care doctor for breathing problems. Steroids can trigger mania in bipolar patients. She was hospitalized, the drugs were adjusted and she was stabilized.”
“They take extra time to listen,” said Goolsby. “Psychiatrists tend to see three to four patients per hour; nurse practitioners average one to two per hour.“
“The nurse practitioner I was referred to was great,” said Donna. “She was the first one to really listen to me about my side effects and suggest remedies. I felt like she really got to know me after our hour together, and she called me a few days later to see how I was doing.”
How can I locate an NP?
AANP provides a directory to help you find a nurse practitioner in your area. Visit AANP and follow the simple steps to locate an NP in your area. For more information, call (512) 442-4262, ext. 5211.
Important note: If your illness is severe and your past treatment has included hospitalization, discuss your medical history in detail with the professional to determine whether he or she is the right practitioner for you. Then, find out what procedures are in place in the event you need urgent care.