Through education, student plans to create a mental health support network 7,000 miles away

March 22, 2023

Graduate student Hajira Baig created a research project to better understand mental health needs and coping strategies in an effort to better assist people in need and reduce stigma surrounding mental illness in rural Pakistan.

Photo of Psychology student Hajira Baig
Graduate student Hajira Baig wants to help educate others about mental health to reduce stigma and create support networks. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

As a therapist in Pakistan, UM-Dearborn graduate student Haijira Baig connected homeless transgender people to nongovernmental organizations in an effort to get them access to housing, healthcare, education and community. She provided resources and support to married women in abusive homes. And she worked in a COVID isolation center providing care to sick people from the pandemic’s earliest days.

But Baig realized that she needed to broaden her credentials and connections to better help people in her rural Pakistani community. 

“I was one of the pioneer therapists in my area who worked with people who had trauma and mental illness where getting help is stigmatized. I realized that I couldn’t reach the number of people that I wanted to reach, especially with the lack of resources available and the stigma people seeking help face,” she said. “We need health policies and intervention plans. So I wrote a proposal asking for the regional government (in Northern Pakistan) to consider putting counselors in schools and hospitals, so people can get treatment sooner. Mental health care can be prioritized and stigma can be reduced. But to do that, people need to see it as part of their everyday life. Access is essential, as is educating families and others on how to become a support network."

Graduate student speaking to an audience in a Pakistani classroom
As a therapist, Hajira Baig spoke to people in Pakistan about COVID.

Realizing that a graduate degree and having global connections may help her move these changes forward, Baig researched graduate programs around the world and applied for a Fulbright Scholars Award, a prestigious grant that would help with tuition costs and support her research work.

Baig’s No. 1 choice for a grad degree? UM-Dearborn. She said the specialization in health psychology, the quality of faculty research and the support master’s students receive when conducting research caught her attention.

“Knowing how to properly conduct research and analyze the data gives more accurate outcomes,” said Baig, who received a two-year Fulbright Scholar Award. “I am passionate about research and finding answers to unexplored phenomena related to human behavior, but due to limited access and competent supervision I was not able to fulfill that dream. But at UM-Dearborn, my thesis adviser (Psychology Professor Pam McAuslan) sat down with me. She’s there every step of the process and taught me how to find articles, collect data, write academically and more.”

Also included in the process is learning how to publicly present research. 

To sharpen her speaking skills and showcase her research, Baig participated in the 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition on campus — and took first place. 

The campus event, which took place March 9, was sponsored by the Office of Graduate Studies and the Office of Research. Baig will present her thesis at the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools regional 3MT Competition at the end of March. The 3MT Competition, originally developed by The University of Queensland, cultivates academic, presentation and research communication skills with students presenting their work succinctly and in an easy-to-understand way. Baig’s research, “Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Post-Traumatic Growth Among Emerging Adults” explores effectiveness of coping mechanisms and strategies of young adults, including spirituality and religiosity. She recently finished data collection and will continue the work through the summer.

 Three Minute Thesis Competition participants gave presentations in Kochoff Hall on March 9.
Three Minute Thesis Competition participants gave presentations in Kochoff Hall on March 9.

Baig said the public speaking opportunity also gave her experience presenting research in English, which is her fourth language.

Baig said if she wants to connect with American agencies, like the National Institutes of Health, or partner with English-speaking researchers, she needs to effectively communicate in the language. “I know I can write well in English, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to engage with a crowd and present my research in an easy-to-understand way, especially under the constraints of time,” she said. “Now that I’ve done that, I’ve seen a change in myself. I feel more confident.”

Knowing the power of education, Baig, who graduates April 30, plans to continue her psychology studies and pursue a Ph.D. Simultaneously, she’ll keep working toward her goal of having a mental health care infrastructure in Pakistan’s rural mountainous areas by working to make it standard for counselors to be placed in schools and hospitals.

Baig said she’s worked with Pakistan’s Ministry of National Health Services, Regulation and Coordination previously through her work as a therapist. As a mental health lead for the Gilgit, Pakistan local health board, Baig organized mental health awareness sessions. She also worked as a research psychologist for a nonprofit organization that focused on uplifting the rural communities near Gilgit, Baltistan and Citral in an effort to reduce poverty.

Baig knows the importance of strong support systems and guidance because she’s had examples in her own life. As a child, Baig saw how her grandfather, Hifz Ullah Baig, would listen to the concerns of the people in their Pakistani community and counsel them. He’d encourage Hajira Baig to sit with him and observe. “He wasn’t trained, but he had a gift for listening to people’s problems and helping them work through them,” Baig said. “I learned a lot about the power of being present and how vital it is for us to have supportive people in our lives.”

Baig said she’s had the goal of helping people since she was a child. She said her degree and the training she received at UM-Dearborn will help her make a difference more than 7,000 miles away: “This is about becoming a better version of myself so that I can help people become better versions of themselves by getting them access to the resources and care that they need. The dots are being connected and the things my grandfather and parents taught me are becoming a reality.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.