Crystallizing Moments

Alumni Asa Briggs in a suit and tieWatching his aunt struggle with bipolar disorder, Asa T. Briggs, DNP, MSN’12, traded in his legal aspirations to pursue a career in mental health care.

“She would have extensive inpatient hospitalization, but then would come out with no continuity of care,” Briggs recalled. “It was a crystallizing moment for me.”

At first Briggs focused on earning his professional counselor license, but then his friend Erica Anderson Stone, MSN’05, an instructor at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, suggested that he consider providing more holistic care for patients.

“It was at that moment that I realized that nursing was ‘it’ for me,” he said.

Briggs enrolled in the School of Nursing’s PreSpecialty program, which is for students entering the profession from other vocations. His focus was psychiatric-mental health.

Asa Briggs sees the disparities in our nation’s health care—and does something about them.

In January, he became program director of rural psychiatric services for Prisma Health in Greenville, South Carolina, working with underserved populations in a city where the poverty rate exceeds 15 percent. Previously, he had spent seven years at Unity Healthcare in Washington, D.C., where he oversaw 22 clinics and provided care through the district’s Department of Corrections.

Having promoted an innovative treatment plan at Unity that offered continuity of care to newly released prison inmates, Briggs is now continuing his novel approach to mental health care in Greenville. Leaning on his Vanderbilt experience, he holds goal-setting sessions with his patients while providing psychiatric care.

“It’s really important for me to understand what their health goals are, and then what we can do to work collaboratively to achieve those goals,” said Briggs, who recently earned his doctor of nursing practice at Yale University. “A lot of times, when it comes to mental health issues, that agency is missing.”

Alumnus Asa Briggs stands next to a sign for My Brother's KeeperWhile increased patient engagement and education can help eliminate disparities in health care, challenges persist among the more vulnerable members of society. At Vanderbilt, Briggs studied biopsychosocial models of care, considering not just biological contributions to mental health, but also “the psychology of the lived experience and the social determinants of health,” he said. That led him to become an adviser to President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, in which Briggs examined the impact that adverse childhood experiences can have on the mental health of young men of color.

“Asa understands the role stigma plays among minority and vulnerable populations, leading to their reluctance to seek mental health care,” said Susie Adams, PhD, PMC’13, FAANP, FAAN, professor of nursing. “He is fulfilling his family’s expectations to give back to the community, which simultaneously reflect Vanderbilt’s mission as a center for scholarly research, informed and creative teaching, and service to the community and society at large.”