Behind the Science: Promoting Women’s Mental HealthThrough Social Interventions

September 9, 2022

Authors: Romina Garicia de leon and Negin Nia, Women’s Health Blog Coordinators | Interviewee: Dr. Saima Hirani, Ph.D., University of British Columbia

Published: September 9th, 2022 

Can you please tell us a bit about your career trajectory as a registered nurse, and now Assistant Professor of Nursing?

I'm an internationally educated nurse. I completed my Bachelors of Science and Master of Science in Nursing from The Aga Khan University in Pakistan. I began  my nursing career as an intensive care unit and cardiac intensive care unit nurse in Pakistan, which involved a lot of technical, high tech, critical care.

I then came to Canada and completed my PhD in Nursing with a focus on mental health at the University of Alberta. After PhD, I went back to Pakistan and worked as an Assistant Professor in the Aga Khan University. In 2019, I joined University of British Columbia (UBC) as a postdoctoral research fellow and currently, I am Assistant Professor,  at UBC,  School of Nursing.

What got you interested in Mental health Nursing? 

After I started working in the ICU, I got some experience with mental health nursing and I got to work with a variety of women, some of whom were incarcerated, survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence. This got me interested in mental health, and many of my teachers recommended me to enter the field.  In 2007, I joined a multidisciplinary research project as a co-investigator that aimed to promote mental health and empowerment in women. My master’s thesis was also part of that larger project. By the time I came to Canada for my PhD, it was very clear that I wanted to focus on women's health and mental health specifically. My PhD focused on development and testing of social support intervention for women’s resilience and quality of life. My program of research mainly focuses on mental health promotion of individuals including women who live in socioeconomic disadvantaged settings. 

You recently published a paper on COVID-19 and its effects on mental health. Can you elaborate on that study? 

So that was a team that I was working with during my postdoctoral work. Dr. Emily Jenkins led this work which was about the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian Mental Health. The first findings that we published showed  an anticipated change in mental health issues among the population, and especially women experienced more mental health issues than men, globally. COVID-19 has affected women badly, as we all know there are some social issues at play. For example, many working women were also taking care of kids at home so there is a double burden. Sex differences were also observed for employment losses i.e. women’s employment has been affected more than men.There’s actually a layer of complexity into women's well being and in turn the well being of the families and the children. 

You touched a bit on this, but why is women's health important to you?

Women's Health has been very close to me for a long time. This passion started when I was a master’s student 15 years ago. I actually joined a multidisciplinary research team back in Pakistan, and it was made up of nurses, psychologists, and psychiatrists. The team’s goal was to develop and test economic skill building and life skill interventions for women, and that’s where my masters thesis came from. So I actually developed and tested that lifestyle building intervention and tested it for feasibility. Intervention development is not an easy task, I went through a lot  of literature, and interviewed several women who were living in some more vulnerable conditions, and some low socio economic communities. I would go to the urban slum areas of Karachi, Pakistan to work with these women. I learnt a lot from these women, it was a life changing experience for me. That was what laid the foundation for my work. After 15 years, I'm still very passionate about that work. 

And the way I think about it is, there are the two main reasons women’s health is important. The first and foremost is, women's health is directly linked with the children and families health, which is the cornerstone of a family's overall health. Working in different contexts  of Pakistan and Canada, I learnt that  in general women and mothers play the same roles across countries. There are some universal gender roles attached to women, therefore, women’s mental health is directly associated with their children's wellbeing.  To pay attention to women’s health and well being is to make children's lives better and create healthier families. 

And the second reason to focus on women’s health is the high prevalence and high risk of developing certain health challenges among women, as women experience unique healthcare issues more than men. Such as reproductive health issues, violence and abuse, depression and anxiety. These issues are more prevalent globally, and not only in low and middle income women. Moreover, women don’t just experience higher prevalence to diseases but more barriers in accessing  health care than men. Some women may lack economic independence in certain countries, meaning no or lack of education opportunities, or unemployment. If women don’t have the freedom to decide for themselves, this creates a large barrier to reach out for help and support.  Mostly, I’ve seen these issues come up in Pakistan, when women get married. A lot  of attention goes to their families and children, leading them to overlook their own health. So I think this realization and awareness drove the focus of my research, and to empower women, and help them prioritize their health. 

Where can people go to learn more about the work that you do? 

I have  twitter @HiraniSaima and people can look at my Google Scholar or PubMed


Blog Author(s)

  • Blog
  • COVID-19
  • mental health
  • nursing
  • research
  • women's health

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