Wanting to help people in need is one reason to build a career in health care, and it's a good one. People with illnesses and injuries need dedicated professionals to help them cope, and hopefully recover. But the health care system is geared largely to treating physical health, and patients with mental health or substance abuse issues can struggle to find help. Mental health and substance abuse are strongly interrelated, and a nurse practitioner with certification in one or the other can have a positive influence on hundreds of damaged lives.
Becoming a Nurse Practitioner
To become a nurse practitioner, in any area of specialization, takes a substantial amount of training and experience. The prerequisite for entry into a nurse practitioner master's degree program is a bachelor's degree in nursing, which takes at least four years. It can be longer, if you become an RN with an associate degree or diploma and need to upgrade as a part-time student. Admission typically requires at least two years' clinical experience in acute care, but admissions are usually competitive and if spaces are limited, they'll go to more experienced nurses. Master's programs are typically focused on family or pediatric care, but you can acquire additional certifications through experience and continuing education.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Working in substance abuse requires a strong background in psychiatric nursing, either as an RN or a nurse practitioner. It's possible to work in substance abuse with no certification at all, but earning certification demonstrates that you've got the skills needed to cope with the job. The two leading credentials in the field are the Certified Addictions Registered Nurse - Advanced Practice certification administered by the Addictions Nursing Certification Board, and the Family Psychiatric–Mental Health Nurse Practitioner certification administered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
The Certified Addictions Registered Nurse - Advanced Practice certification, or CARN-AP, is available to any advanced practice nurse including nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists. Candidates must hold a current, unrestricted RN license in the United States or Canada, and hold a master's degree or doctoral degree in nursing. They must also have at least 500 hours' clinical experience in addictions and substance abuse at the graduate level, which includes any practicum time included in the master's degree. Candidates must also pass the certification exam, consisting of 145 multiple-choice questions. It's offered twice each year, in spring and fall.
The ANCC is the credentialing organization of the American Nurses Association, which earns its certifications a high level of professional respect. The ANCC's Family Psychiatric–Mental Health Nurse Practitioner certification, or PMHNP-BC, has an especially rigorous set of eligibility requirements. Candidates must hold a master's degree or higher, and a current RN license. They must have graduated from an accredited psychiatric NP program, meet specific coursework requirements, and spend a minimum of 500 hours in supervised clinical experience. The exam consists of 200 questions, and is available year-round.
Maintenance of Certification
It's important for nurse practitioners in any field to stay up to date on current research and new techniques in the field, so both of these credentials must be maintained through continuing education. To keep your CARN-AP certification, you must earn 80 continuing education credits over a four-year cycle, and actively work in substance abuse for no fewer than 1,200 hours during those four years. Renewal for the PMHNP-BC credential is on a five-year cycle. Nurse practitioners must complete 150 contact hours of professional development during that time, of which at least half must be in continuing education. They must also spend a minimum of 1,000 hours actively practicing in the psychiatric specialty, or take a renewal examination at the end of the five years.
- Explore Health Careers: Nurse Practitioner
- Addictions Nursing Certification Board: INTNSA/ANCB FAQs
- International Nurses Society on Addictions: CARN/CARN-AP Examination Information
- International Nurses Society on Addictions: Recertification Information
- American Nurses Credentialing Center: Family Psychiatric–Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certification Eligibility Criteria
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.