Sanam is currently completing her Master’s program at the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research under the supervision of Dr Fiona Charlson, Head of the Mental Health and Development Group at QCMHR. Sanam’s research involves investigating mental health within the Australian Afghan communities.
Tell me about yourself and your background, how did you find out about the opportunity to pursue your research career through QCMHR?
I am from Afghanistan, grew up in Pakistan and moved to Australia with my family as a young teenager in 2009. I always really enjoyed science and wanted to help people through becoming a doctor. As I got through the final years of high school I really fell in love with neuroscience and the study of mind. I further explored this interest during my Bachelor of Science at the University of Queensland through several neuroscience and psychology electives.
I also have a strong passion for social and political change through changes in the overarching systems and policies and continued being very involved in communities. In the pursuit of Medicine, I ended up enrolling into the Master of International Public Health, which has been the perfect combination of my passion for development and change with my passion for health.
In my first semester of Master of International Public Health, I was greatly inspired by the course “Health aspects of Disasters” to do my own primary research on the mental health of Afghans, within and outside Afghanistan. After I pitched my idea to Dr Jo Durham, the course coordinator, she really encouraged me and suggested contacting Dr Fiona Charlson about the research project so she could be my supervisor. So after developing my idea a little bit more, I emailed Dr Fiona and that is how I ended up pursuing my Master’s dissertation through QCMHR.
What does your research look at and what inspired you to pursue this project in particular?
My research focuses on Afghans in Australia with the aim of identifying the mental health status, levels of stigma and mental health knowledge, barriers to care as well as help-seeking behaviours in the community. I am also comparing first and second generation Afghans, different age groups and genders in order to discover factors that could influence behaviours and beliefs revolving around mental health in the community and barriers and facilitators to service utilisation.
My inspiration stemmed from my passion for social change and the human mind, as well as my own direct and indirect experiences with depression and anxiety as an Afghan. While Afghans are vulnerable to mental health concerns, service utilisation and help seeking remains quite low. I want to identify the causal factors so that it gives us better insight on what we can do differently to influence change.
Why is this topic important and what do you hope will come out of this project?
There is a huge gap in data and research when it comes to mental health of Afghans, inside or outside Afghanistan. Given the decades of war and trauma, followed by stressful experiences of migration and the post-resettlement factors, Afghans in foreign countries like Australia are very vulnerable to mental health concerns. Despite this, the topic of mental health continues to remain a taboo and conversations around the issue are very limited in the community.
While there are steps being taken to address the mental health of refugees and asylum seekers in general, I believe it is important to address the differences in the experiences and cultural views of the different communities in order to ensure our services in Australia are effective and address the issue well. Another concern is that studies mostly focus on refugees and asylum seekers and overlook the impacts of these experiences on their children, second generation individuals or those who moved to a foreign country at a young age. The arising intergenerational conflict and trauma is quiet stressful and makes these children very vulnerable to psychological distress, which needs to be addressed.
With this project I want to get the conversation started in the community and fill gaps in research that would allow policy makers and service providers a better insight into how to ensure effective and culturally sensitive services are available for the community. There is a lot more work that needs to be done; I am simply doing my small part.
Where to from here, what are your plans for your future as a researcher?
I do want to conduct a mental health focused research project in Afghanistan itself one day and while going through my collected data I see a lot of potential for further work in Australia as well; so there is definitely the possibility of a PhD in the future! Until then, I want to explore my career within public health by working more here at QCMHR and learn as much as possible from the amazing team we have in place.