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Mental Health ‘Beyond Our Borders’

Fulbrighter Dr. Shahnaz Savani Brings a Global View Home to UHD


By Ashley Kilday

In 2022, four UHD professors received Fulbright Scholar Awards, earning the University the “Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program Top Producing Institution” designation for the 2022-2023 academic year. We’ve followed up with each of our Fulbrighters to hear about their experiences. In the last of our series, we talked with Dr. Shahnaz Savani, Assistant Professor in the College of Public Service’s Social Work program.

Dr. Shahnaz Savani’s Fulbright scholarship enabled her to teach for a semester in Tajikistan, a tiny, extremely poor country in the heart of Central Asia. “The goal of my work was to destigmatize mental health treatment within the community I visited,” Savani said. “One way to destigmatize an issue is to offer a course at an institution of higher learning about that issue.” That’s just what Savani did at the University of Central Asia—the first time such a course had been offered at a university in Tajikistan.savani-small

Breaking Down Barriers

It was a groundbreaking step in challenging the prevailing regional attitudes around mental health topics such as depression, suicidal ideation, and schizophrenia. In Tajikistan, instructors hold an almost godlike status, Savani explained, discouraging students from challenging or questioning them. She sought to break down these barriers and empower her students to think critically. “I encouraged my students to address me by my first name; I sat with them in a conference-style room; and I fostered an environment where their voices were valued,” she said. Witnessing the transformation of reserved students into active participants was immensely rewarding, she noted.

Research Focus

Savani spent part of her time in Tajikistan conducting extensive research on mental health data, which was nonexistent. That hindered effective treatment efforts. And even if the best treatment were offered at a local hospital, Savani explained, people would not use it because of the social stigma. To uncover biases, she chose an “experimental case vignette design” to collect information on attitudes related to mental health. Using hypothetical scenarios, she portrayed individuals with various mental health conditions to gauge public perceptions. The results provided valuable insights. “This data holds immense potential for future research articles and shedding light on the accessibility and acceptability of mental health treatment in the region,” Savani said.

A Global View of Mental Health

Tajikistan’s current geopolitical violence and internal turmoil present challenges to the University of Central Asia's continuation of the mental health course. Still, Savani remains hopeful that her work will have a lasting impact there. And she brought lessons learned home to her classes at UHD.

“Teaching in Tajikistan opened my eyes to the global context of mental health,” she said. “How mental illness is presented in different parts of the world is something I brought back to my classroom.” Savani shifted her focus to teaching research methods in that global context. “It became essential to convey the universality of mental health issues beyond our borders,” she said.Savanai hiking

Reflecting on her Fulbright experience, Savani noted, “I would encourage others to pursue the opportunity for personal and professional growth. The Fulbright scholarship provides a unique chance to live and work in a different cultural context while making a meaningful impact.” She acknowledged the Fulbright application process is competitive and requires persistence, but, she concluded, “The exposure to diverse perspectives and the chance to contribute to positive change make it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity worth pursuing.”

About the University of Houston-Downtown

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.