Fulbright Program Recognizes UHD Researcher’s Work Addressing Suicide
Dr. Shahnaz Savani Selected as Fulbright Alternate for Research on Suicide in Tajikistan
By Mike Emery
According to the University of Houston-Downtown's Dr. Shahnaz Savani, there is no greater gift than life itself. This mantra informs her teaching, research and field work exploring the complex topic of suicide.
Savani’s work is indeed universal, but a recent project focused specifically on the tiny country of Tajikistan. The nation, the smallest and the poorest in Central Asia, has seen dramatic spikes in suicide. Savani hopes the project “Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in Tajikistan: Building Awareness and Capacity” can support the citizens of this nation.
This project was recently acknowledged by the Fulbright Program, and Savani was named an alternate candidate for the Fulbright Scholar Award for the 2021 – 2022 cycle.
“I am very honored and humbled by this award,” said Savani, Lecturer and Assistant Director of Field Education in UHD’s Social Work Program. “This recognition is clear indication that there is an urgent need in Tajikistan to address suicide in this region.”
Savani is well familiar with the challenges facing the citizens of this country as she has been involved in service work in the region. This work supported her doctoral dissertation and now provides critical insights to this project that has been acknowledged by the Fulbright Program.
The challenges faced by the citizens of Tajikistan are many, Savani said. The country’s lack of mental health resources leaves many without guidance or support. Additionally, socio-cultural factors (often related to religious beliefs and the country’s economic disadvantages) contribute to the vulnerabilities of its citizens.
Savani’s project takes these factors into consideration, and uses community-based interventions to help residents of the region. Recruiting and training mental health interventionists is a key step in providing support, she said.
“In western society, people can seek assistance through hotlines, mental health professionals such as psychiatrists or psychologists, or even specialized centers offering free counseling. These are not viable options for the people of Tajikistan,” Savani said. “Lay volunteers or community health workers, if trained, can offer interventions at the community level. They can meet these citizens in an environment that is familiar such as their communities or their villages.”
Meeting Tajiks at their level is critical, Savani said. Door-to-door counseling to teach families about the symptoms of depression can go far in averting the loss of life in communities. According to Savani, the community-based interventions she proposes are evidence based and have been successfully applied in other lower income contexts.
Interventions delivered at the community level are brief and targeted, she said. They may include two to three sessions that are each less than an hour and include teaching techniques such as deep breathing, problem solving, managing emotions and behavioral activation (promoting physical and mental activity).
“These techniques can relieve many symptoms of mental illness,” Savani said. “Most importantly, they also can be taught at the community level.”
As a Fulbright alternate, Savani will be on standby to teach three courses on mental health, suicide prevention and research methods at the University of Central Asia. She also will research attitudes and stigma toward mental illness in the region.
In the meantime, she will continue to prepare UHD social work students to address suicide in local communities. Her class “Understanding Suicide” (delivered at the College of Public Service) shares interventions relevant to populations in Texas and the United States.
Savani has lectured internationally on this topic and shared her insights in the media during World Suicide Prevention Day. She remains committed to educating both students and the public at large on recognizing suicide warning signs and developing interventions to prevent an individual taking their own life.
So many mental health and social work challenges can be addressed with the right interventions, she said. Suicide, however, is irreversible. Bearing that in mind, Savani will continue to apply her academic insights to promoting understanding of this topic and to helping others.
“It’s a very important issue,” she said. “The world loses 1.5 million people to suicide each year, and many of these cases are preventable. It is a tragic loss of life, and I couldn't imagine doing anything else with my life other than focusing on this issue.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.