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Public health student uses fellowship to support refugees’ mental health

The prestigious Albert Schweitzer Fellowship allowed Brinda Kalra ’24 to help refugees start new lives in America
Brinda Kalra

Brinda Kalra ’24 is committed to bringing the importance of mental health into the mainstream—and thanks to her studies at Texas A&M University School of Public Health and an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, she has a better understanding of public health’s role in supporting mental health.

Mental health often carries a stigma, creating barriers that can delay or even prevent individuals from getting appropriate treatment or support. The graduate student saw these challenges firsthand while growing up in New Delhi, India.

“In India, people take more of a hush-hush approach around therapy. It’s a cultural and stigmatized thing because they are worried that others will consider them crazy,” she said.

Since coming to the United States, Kalra has found that Americans as a whole understand the importance of mental health but are still hesitant to talk about mental health concerns. “It’s easier to talk about these issues with a therapist, but not with friends,” she said.

Committed to helping others

Growing up in New Delhi, Kalra found she had a soft spot for assisting others. For example, when she was in middle school, Kalra served as a scribe for a student whose physical limitations made it impossible for him to write. She was also influenced by her father, a government official who works in the department focused on disability issues.

Kalra earned a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from Delhi University in 2021. During her studies, she gained a wealth of volunteer and internship experiences, including teaching girls who lived in India’s slums, working with children who have disabilities, and assisting individuals with muscular dystrophy, physical handicaps, and mental health issues such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Her interest in public health began during the COVID-19 pandemic. She had been doing one-on-one therapy with children who had disabilities but was forced to stop as India went into quarantine.

“I saw how COVID-19 impacted the families, especially the mothers of children with autism or ADHD who were already prone to stress and emotional challenges,” Kalra said. “These children’s routines and support systems were disrupted, and the abrupt closure of schools and therapy centers meant that crucial services and interventions were suddenly unavailable, placing immense strain on parents. The lack of social interaction and sensory stimulation further intensified behavioral challenges and emotional distress for both children and parents.”

These experiences, combined with working in telehealth services supporting individuals with muscular dystrophy across India, gave her a different perspective.

“That’s where it caught my attention that we can deal with the population at one time, and that’s how I started researching about public health,” Kalra said. “I also saw a lot of trauma during the second wave of COVID, which made me want to pursue a graduate degree so I could learn how to de-stigmatize mental health and make it okay to talk about these issues.”

Welcome to Aggieland

Interested in studying in the United States, Kalra’s research led her to the Texas A&M School of Public Health. She decided to enroll in the school’s Master of Public Health in Health Policy and Management program.

Her studies—which have included an internship teaching young adults with disabilities who are part of Texas A&M’s Aggie Paths and Achieve programs and the opportunity to analyze the use of Texas A&M’s mental health services—have given her a better understanding of mental health issues.

Kalra’s academic experience was deepened even more through receiving the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to meet students from other universities in the Houston/Galveston area and learn about interprofessional experiences.

The fellowship also gave Kalra an opportunity to work remotely on a community project with Amaanah Refugee Services. The Houston non-profit supports refugees in starting new lives through services that assist with education, health care and overall well- being.

Kalra’s work started with conducting a needs assessment to understand the refugee women’s experiences.

“This fellowship opened my eyes to the women’s reality because it’s not easy to navigate living in the United States from a developing country,” she said. “Even seemingly simple things like going to get groceries can be difficult for refugees and immigrants because of the differences in transportation systems.”

Kalra also organized awareness webinars on mental health topics and resources, assisted in coordinating an art workshop, and served as a contact to provide information on self-help and self-care. As she learned more, the Aggie was touched by the refugees’ journeys and commitment to creating a new life.

“The openness and resilience they displayed while sharing their stories and challenges were truly inspiring,” Kalra said. “It reaffirmed the importance of the work we do and the positive impact we can have on their lives.”

With graduation in sight in May, Kalra already has planned her next steps: pursuing a doctorate and then gaining clinical experience working in the mental health field. Ultimately, she wants to combine her academic and clinical experiences to teach at the university level.

“The experiences I’ve gained have been life-changing, and I’ve witnessed the transformational power of compassion, empathy and support,” she said. “I am committed to continuing this important work with dedication and enthusiasm.”

Media contact: Dee Dee Grays, grays@tamu.edu, 979.436.0611

Dorian Martin

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