By Hayden Burfitt (UNLV School of Nursing Student Worker - Communications)
After receiving his Bachelor of Science in Nursing from UNLV in 2018, Yobel Asefaw had no idea he would return to school so soon. A need for mental health advocacy in his community, however, inspired him to take action. Now, Asefaw has just graduated as part of the first-ever class of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners in the UNLV School of Nursing, hoping to break the silence surrounding mental health.
Asefaw was initially driven to become a nurse by his parents. As a caretaker for his father, he gained an appreciation for patient care. His mother, a certified nursing assistant, later helped him learn how to handle the personal side of nursing as he acclimated to his new job. “She helped me deal with the stress of the job,” Asefaw recalled. “She helped me understand the patient dynamic. Sometimes, you’re going into work and not everything is going to go your way; sometimes, patients go into the hospital, but they are not going to leave the hospital.”
Asefaw’s interest in mental health did not stem from his parents, but rather his cultural community. “One of the main things that led me towards mental health is that I am Eritrean,” Asefaw began. “Mental health isn’t really talked about within our community. In our language, we don’t even have specific words to talk about mental illness: it just falls under the category of ‘You are crazy,’ or ‘You are scared.’” Many of Asefaw’s peers are first-generation Americans and children of immigrants. He found that younger Eritreans were having difficulty discussing mental health with their more traditional parents. “Hearing from friends, there is no dialogue,” Asefaw explained. “If they were to mention wanting to see a therapist to their parents, the response they would get is blame. There’s so much stigma placed on it and [their parents] are so afraid of other people in the community knowing that they would just bottle it up.”
Realizing that Eritreans in his age group needed someone to represent them, Asefaw enrolled in UNLV School of Nursing’s psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner track and earned his master’s degree in December 2022. Asefaw is currently working at Southern Hills Hospital, performing inpatient psychiatric nursing per diem but has been accepted to work at Alliance Mental Health Specialists upon completing his board certification exams and receiving his Drug Enforcement Administration license. Asefaw hopes he can help break down the bias against mental healthcare for both Eritreans and men, two demographics he believes are currently underrepresented in mental health, saying, “I think if they see someone they can relate to, someone they know within their own community, they would be more open to dialogue.”
Despite their reluctance to discuss mental health, Asefaw’s compatriots have given him their support, most recently at his graduation party. “During my graduation speech, I said, ‘If I were a parent, I would rather have my child take medication and see a therapist than attend their funeral,’” Asefaw explained. “As soon as I said that, everyone cheered and they understood which decision would be better. Some parents even came up to me afterwards saying that they were proud of me for doing this and we really need this in our community.” Asefaw continued, “I’m not sure if I am the first Eritrean mental health provider in town, but I want to open up that conversation so my people can have an outlet. That is why I chose mental health.”