Second Time’s A Charm: Dr. Shahnaz Savani Named Fulbright Scholar
By Sheryl E. Taylor
It’s been barely a year since Dr. Shahnaz Savani was named a Fulbright alternate for a research project she holds dear: the gift of a renewed commitment to life in the tiny, landlocked country of Tajikistan.
Surrounded by neighboring countries of Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan sits in the heart of Central Asia with a population of more than 9.6 million. Interestingly, it was part the Soviet Union from 1929 until it earned its independence in 1991. The country is a bit smaller than the state of Wisconsin, half the size of Italy, and remains the poorest country in Central Asia. The dominant religion is Islam, a religion that forbids suicide – yet Tajikistan has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.
“These countries in Central Asia are Muslim, and there is a strong prohibition against suicide and suicide attempts,” said Savani. “People who are suicidal do not get the help they need, and their families also are ostracized and shamed as a result. Available resources are extremely limited, and there is a great deal of complexity as to why suicide rates are so high.”
Savani traveled to Tajikistan in 2013 as a volunteer to conduct mental health needs assessments of the community and set up a crisis hotline. The work informed her doctoral dissertation and ultimately inspired her to continue with her service work in the region. That’s where the Fulbright Scholar Program came in. Three years later she joined UHD.
As a newly minted U.S. citizen in 2019, Savani was eligible to apply for a Fulbright, which she did for the first time in 2020. Three decisions can be handed down by the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board: selected, not selected, and alternate. She was recognized as an alternate candidate for the 2021 - 2022 cycle, but her tenacious spirit never waned. She applied again in 2021 and was selected for the 2022 - 2023 cycle.
Her research project, “Creating Capacity: Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in Badakhshan” will begin this August at the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan, where she will host three undergraduate courses: Understanding Suicide in the Global Context, Global Mental Health, and Research Methods. For her research component of the Fulbright, Savani will be taking a deep dive into “Attitudes and Barriers to Seeking Help for Mental Health.”
For her undergraduate classes, Savani hopes to provide students with the opportunity to engage with the topics of mental health and mental illness, and suicide prevention and intervention, which is needed in the Badakhshan province where they live.
“I want these students to learn how to conduct research by going out into the communities,” the Lecturer of Social Work explained. “Through this initiative, I am creating a cadre of students and professionals who will have the scientific knowledge and education about mental health and mental illness and suicide prevention and intervention to move this forward in Badakhshan.”
Savani also noted that “in the entire province of Badakhshan, where the rate of depression and suicide is extremely high, there is not a single university that offers a single course on mental health and/or suicide prevention and intervention.”
“There is research to suggest that there is a correlation between courses being offered at the university level and a reduction in the stigma of mental health in the community,” she noted. “Even though there is criminality involved (suicide is a criminal offense in Tajikistan), my hope is that healthcare providers will begin to look at the problem and realize that services in mental health and wellness as well as suicide prevention and intervention are desperately needed. The overarching theme is that the dissemination of knowledge and education diminishes the stigma surrounding these ‘taboo’ topics.”
Post-Fulbright, Savani plans on returning to the U.S. and continuing a professional connection with the University of Central Asia: “My strong hope is to have this project become sustainable with an educated community around mental health and mental illness that will contribute to reducing the suicide rate.”
The dedication page of her Ph.D. dissertation, “A Renewed Commitment to Life: A Grounded Theory Study of Suicide Attempts in Badakhshan,” sums up her commitment to this cause: “This dissertation is dedicated to the people of Badakhshan, whose faith and resilience have kept me going.”
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.
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