Get to know the researchers at QCMHR and the significance of their research projects.

Suhailah Ali is part of the Policy and Epidemiology Group (PEG) team at QCMHR. Working under Fiona Charlson, Suhailah has been involved in the Mental Health in the Pacific project.

Keep reading to learn why this project is so important to Suhailah and how she got into public health!

Tell me about yourself and your background, how did you come to pursue your research career through QCMHR?

I ended up in public health in quite a roundabout way! After finishing school I decided to study biology, being fascinated with the natural world. During this time I realised what fascinated me in particular was the human brain – trying to understand life on Earth is one thing but how do we question it in the first place? This curiosity drove me to pursue neuroscience and led me to the Queensland Brain Institute, where I completed an MPhil under the supervision of Darryl Eyles investigating the neurobiological mechanisms underpinning schizophrenia. While working towards a better understanding of a complex psychiatric disorder, I learnt that my aspirations leaned more towards people, to improve outcomes of those living with such conditions. This people-centred approach directed me towards public health, epidemiology and policy, and Darryl facilitating an introduction to Harvey Whiteford. I jumped at the opportunity to work in the PEG team and here I am!

What does your current research look at and what inspired you to pursue this project in particular?

I was particularly interested in Fiona Charlson’s work because of her focus on disadvantaged communities, which often don’t receive as much attention as they should. I think it also resonated with me having grown up in a developing country, Fiji, where mental health is a painfully misunderstood and overlooked issue. I was eager to be involved in Fiona’s Pacific work and was lucky enough to join her at the recent Pacific Health Governance Research Network (PHGRN) workshop in Fiji in February. We are currently working on a publication about mental health in the Pacific, with the longer term aim of conducting a population survey in the region.

Why is this topic important and what do you hope will come out of your project? (Publication, increased awareness or support for these communities? etc.)

There is currently no epidemiological data on the prevalence of mental disorders in any Pacific island country, which is a serious limitation to the effective provision of mental health services. The region is also struggling to cope with an increasing burden of noncommunicable diseases, which can have a bidirectional relationship with mental disorders, resulting in chronic co-morbidities and poorer outcomes. Finally, the Pacific is already facing the escalating effects of climate change, which is creating more drivers of poor mental health. We need to put mental health on the agenda of policy-makers in the region.

Where to from here, what are your plans for your future as a researcher?

I am hoping to start a PhD with Fiona in July, with the broad aim of quantifying the contribution of mental disorders to premature mortality. This is an important topic and should also provide me with a solid grasp of epidemiological methods. I’m also hoping to continue with the Pacific work once funding is secured. I’m not sure where exactly my research career is going to take me but I hope that wherever it leads, it has a positive, meaningful impact.

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