Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: How a Professor Found His Niche in Climate Change, Culture and Mental Health

Shabab Wahid spent his childhood on the move. Born in Bangladesh, he lived in Kenya and Nepal in his youth, before making his way to the U.S. for college and eventually Georgetown. At each step along the way, he experienced culture shock after culture shock while adjusting to new foreign environments

Shabab Wahid giving a presentation
Shabab Wahid is an assistant professor in the School of Health who studies the intersection of mental health, culture and climate change.

Years later, he followed in his mother’s footsteps to pursue a career in global health. But it would take years before he discovered how his international upbringing gave him a unique lens to study global health.

An assistant professor in the School of Health, Wahid occupies an often unexplored niche in global health, researching the intersection of mental health, culture and climate change. Through his work, he studies how climate disasters from floods to extreme heat can exacerbate mental health challenges and how a patient’s cultural environment can significantly alter their experience of mental illness and outcomes.

Recently, Wahid co-launched and started serving on the advisory board of the Global Mental Health and Well-Being Initiative, an initiative from the School of Health that promotes community engagement on mental health on Georgetown’s campus. 

While Wahid grew up in a family of global health practitioners, he did not follow a straight line to get to where he is today. Instead, he went through a process of trial and error to refine his specific academic interest within the expansive field of global health.

“As a kid, I was always interested in science, but I never really had the clarity of what I wanted to do,” he said. “For me, a lot of this has been emergent, iterative, two steps back and one step forward, things I’ve discovered based on things I’ve learned.”

Follow along as Wahid traces the steps he took to carve his own path in global health and how his international experiences formed him into the scholar he is today.

Behind the CV: Shabab Wahid on Mental Health, Culture and Climate Change

A family history in global health: Global health was always very near to me because my mother was an officer with UNICEF, and she traveled quite a bit around the world working with UNICEF in Kenya, Afghanistan and Nepal. I traveled with her to Kenya and Nepal as a young person before college and became very intimately familiar with the world of global health, what it was about and why it was important. And, of course, it was very inspiring to see the kind of work that my mom was doing. 

My grandfather was also a public health professional. I’m originally from Bangladesh, and he was the first Director of Primary Health Care, Health Services, Ministry of Health, Bangladesh. He also worked with the World Health Organization, so we always had lots of guests from all across the world, which was a fairly uncommon experience for a family in Bangladesh at that time.

A formative moment in Kenya: I was 14 years old when I went to Nairobi [with my mom]. At the time, the HIV epidemic was ravaging Kenya. There was an orphanage for HIV-positive children, and I remember a couple of days before Christmas in Nairobi just packing gifts, small things, school supplies, small toys, some clothes. I remember my mom telling me something like, “You never know if these children have known kindness in their lives, so let’s see what we can do.” And that was a very pivotal, moving experience that I still remember.

How living abroad formed me: Having that experience of [living in different cultures] detaches you from a core sense of how the world is and should be. You get a sense of the flexibility and fluidity of the world, people, societies, cultures, norms and everything. That allows you to be not so tightly bound to your own values and ideals. It allows me to interact and engage students and respondents in my research from a place of non-judgment, a place where I can suspend my sense of self in an easier way.

 I instantly knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And every moment subsequent to that has been a validation of that initial instinct.

Shabab Wahid

The paper that changed my life: I came across an article [during my doctoral program] by a professor of religion at Stanford who does research in the mental health space that looked at auditory hallucinations of people who have schizophrenia in India, Ghana and the United States. 

When they analyzed the auditory hallucinations that these individuals were experiencing, they found that for those residing in the United States, the voices were very cruel and punitive, saying harsh statements like, “Your mother hates you, nobody likes you.” All very pointed, self-critical, stressful narratives, which made the lived experience of people very unpleasant. 

However, when they analyzed the narratives amongst those they surveyed in India, the descriptions did not have the kind of negative coercive or punishing narratives. Instead, the Indian respondents described there to be something like a friendship with the voices they were hearing. It was amicable, someone who was a companion, and often voices of different family members were reported. So the conclusion that the authors drew from that was the way that the sense of self develops in individualistic societies versus collectivist societies could have a role to play in the lived experiences of people with schizophrenia.

It was a super clear [moment] in the midst of a lot of confusion that preceded it, and I instantly knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And every moment subsequent to that has been a validation of that initial instinct.

The research grabbed me because: There is a real clinical application of this. For a lot of people with severe schizophrenia, recovery is a very long journey, if at all [possible]. But we can definitely improve quality of life. It has been shown in subsequent research that if you coach people to make friends with the voices you’re hearing, the kind of cruel, punishing narrative starts to soften.

How climate change found its way into my research: We are all living in a world of climate change whether we like it or not or choose to believe it or not. Climate change has been described as the biggest global health threat of this century. While physical health impacts of climate change are established, new emerging research has begun to show that mental health may be impacted by climate change as well. I have a strong collaborator and close friend in Bangladesh who is a health economist at the World Bank. We had been discussing ways to collaborate, and there was an opportunity to do some work on this one study he was leading looking at the kind of connection between stressors related to climate change and health outcomes. 

Because of my expertise in mental health, we had the idea to include some mental health indicators in the survey. When the survey data came back, we did the analysis and found these associations with elevated temperature, elevated humidity and adverse depressive and anxiety outcomes. What this means is as temperatures continue to rise and extreme weather events continue to increase in frequency and severity, the associated impacts on mental health and well-being of affected populations will continue to worsen. This is especially amplified for those living in resource-poor nations of the world, who had little to do with creating the climate crisis in the first place, reflecting a deep inequity in the reality of who is affected by climate change and who stays relatively buffered from its harshest impacts. 

How I got to Georgetown: I was doing my postdoc at George Washington University, where I did my doctorate and my master’s. I got to learn about Georgetown’s Department of Global Health, and they were looking for an instructor for a global mental health course as an adjunct. I sent in my application, and then I was invited to teach the course as an adjunct. So I was teaching that course, and a full-time position was opening up and I applied and was offered and accepted. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be here in this community.

My proudest accomplishment in my career: What gives me the most joy is to mentor extraordinarily bright students here at Georgetown. There is nothing more rewarding to me than to be able to work with our students and help nurture their interests and guide their interests toward things they want to do in mental health.

My pitch to study mental health: Suffering is a fundamental part of human history. If you look back at ancient history and trace it to modern times, [mental health issues] have plagued us, maladies of the mind or madness in a way.  While mental illnesses and its associated suffering and social impacts such as stigmatization and discrimination still plague the world, this is a time of tremendous optimism in global mental health. We have made incredible strides in breaking down stigma worldwide, although much work needs to be done. 

We have amplified the “global” in mental health and have begun to alter antiquated ways of approaching mental health that were heavily informed by research conducted solely in the global North. Finally, we have learned from colleagues in global health, innovated and established compelling evidence that we can address distress and disorder using community-based resources, using trained community members, to deliver effective mental health interventions to those in need. Over the upcoming decades, I look forward very much to seeing how we scale up these services and finally democratize access to effective community-based mental health care across the world.