Meet The Scholars: Saira Afzal

Saira Afzal is PhD student in social work at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She is a member of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2022.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are. 

I am a second-year PhD student studying social work at Bryn Mawr College. I live in Philadelphia with my husband and dog, Leo. When I am not engrossed in school, I love hiking and reading thriller detective novels. My research focuses on youth suicidality, particularly among youth of color and marginalized youth. I am interested in suicide prevention/intervention, especially as related to understanding the best ways to include families and caregivers in work with suicidal youth.

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?  

Prior to entering doctoral studies, I was a clinical social worker for six years in a pediatric emergency department. On any given day, I would meet with several families personifying the public health crisis related to youth mental health and suicide: young children coming to the hospital needing stitches for self-injurious behaviors, pre-teens coming for crisis mental health assessments with plans to end their lives, and most devastating, children who arrive via ambulance after dying by suicide. I have seen how inequitable access to quality care negatively affects youth in need of urgent mental health services, and how this impacts families differently based on their positionality.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.

I am currently working on a project with Dr. Abigail Ross at Fordham University and other colleagues at Children’s Hospital of Orange County that is funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. As the research social worker on the team, I interviewed caregivers, youth, and providers about their experiences of inpatient mental health treatment with particular attention to the ways in which family/caregivers are involved in treatment.

We then took the feedback and used it to adapt the Family-Based Crisis Intervention, an evidence-based intervention created to stabilize suicidal youth in Emergency Department settings, for use on inpatient psychiatric settings. We are currently conducting a randomized clinical trial of the adapted intervention. It is exciting to be part of a thoughtful team of researchers and clinicians focused on improving care for youth and families.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?  

I think it’s important for those who interact most with youth—caregivers, school staff, extracurricular leaders—to know that it is helpful to talk to youth about mental health and how they are doing early and often. Research has debunked the idea that talking to youth about suicide will “put the idea in their head” or increase their risk in some way. Means reduction is effective and important: caregivers should secure any firearms and store medication in a secure place.

Who is a researcher you admire and why? 

There continues to be intense stigma around suicide, particularly among family members who have survived a suicide loss. I was familiar with the work of Dr. Thomas Joiner prior to entering doctoral studies—he is considered a leader in the field of suicidology, and his Interpersonal Theory of Suicide has been widely studied.

In reading his book “Why People Die by Suicide” I was surprised to learn that Dr. Joiner and I had something in common—we have both lost close family members to suicide. His discussion around how this personal loss fueled his scholarship is inspiring to me and has helped me navigate my own journey of considering how my commitment to youth suicide prevention can be both personal and professional.

How do you think HPRS will complement your doctoral training?

I believe HPRS offers the tools and support I need as I learn to translate my values and goals into rigorous scholarship and actionable policy change. Having the support of the HPRS National Program Center team and my fellow scholars is also invaluable and has allowed me space to figure out how to be my authentic self as a scholar. As a South Asian woman at a predominantly white institution, having a group of diverse peers has been vitally important.

What part(s) of HPRS excite you the most?

The most exciting part of HPRS has been getting to know the rest of my amazing cohort! It is lovely to be part of such an amazing, supportive, conscientious, and justice-oriented group of scholars. I feel grateful to learn with, from, and alongside them. I am also looking forward to working with a mentor and leadership coach who share my dedication and commitment in working toward achieving health equity.

In the RWJF HPRS program we will work with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?  

Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), sometimes called red flag laws or extreme risk laws, exist in only a small number of states. ERPOs allow family members to petition court systems to temporarily prevent an individual in mental health crisis from purchasing a firearm and would remove all firearms from the person’s home. Given that the majority of deaths by suicide are due to firearms, I believe this type of legislation would save lives and should be enacted at the federal level.

Here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why?

My parents were born in Pakistan, and I have always wanted to visit the beautiful northern mountainous region of Pakistan, the Hunza Valley. It is a difficult trip to make, but one that is on my bucket list!

Read Saira’s bio.


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