February 2019

UNT Social Work professor receives India Venture Fund award for students to study mental health practices in Mumbai

The research will be used to determine best practices for a country with unregulated mental health services.

DENTON (UNT), Texas – Students in the University of North Texas College of Health and Public Service (HPS) will travel to India this summer with Dr. Dhru Mukherjee, associate professor of social work for the Joint Masters of Social Work Program, to study the country’s delivery of mental health services. The project is sponsored by UNT International’s India Venture Fund 2019.

“Dr. Mukherjee’s project is an exciting initiative for UNT,” said Dr. Pia Wood, vice provost and dean for International Affairs. “In addition to advancing the university’s global partnerships with India, the project provides UNT students with a unique opportunity to enhance their global perspectives through a research experience abroad.”

Students will spend a week in Mumbai conducting fieldwork and directly engaging with focus groups of mental health professionals. The students will observe therapists’ practices and collect data that will inform their theses to make recommendations on best practices tailored to India.

“In India, there is no standardized mechanism for accountability when it comes to mental health services,” said Dr. Mukherjee. “There is a high demand for therapy, but all you need to practice is a degree – whether it’s in social work, psychology, an online degree, any degree – but there is no licensing. There is no supervision. We want to explore these practices and determine their feasibility.”

Dr. Mukherjee would like to use these findings to apply for a Fulbright in hopes of getting other forms of research funding to solidify best practices to help standardize mental health care in India. But, he says India isn’t the only country that lacks accountability for mental health professionals.

“This is a good investment on the part of UNT as there are opportunities all over the world to research how standardized mechanisms for accountability vary across countries,” Dr. Mukherjee said. “Once we finalize this project, I plan to work to expand this research to the UK.”

 Dean Neale Chumbler says this is just one example of the far-reaching impact of research in HPS.

“We are a student-centered college dedicated to making a difference not just regionally, but globally,” Dr. Chumbler said. “It is imperative that our students have opportunities to study abroad so that they can make an impact in the places they’re needed most. With this project, they truly have the chance to help reshape unregulated mental health systems and recommend best practices in an area of health care where there is a critical need.”


Portugal trip teaches UNT students benefits of radical decriminalization approach to drug use and trafficking  

Students visited Lisbon and Porto to observe harm reduction services put in place by doctors, legislators, counselors and police officers to reduce drug use.

DENTON (UNT), Texas – There was a skyrocketing heroin problem in Portugal in the 80s and 90s – an estimated 1 percent of the population was addicted to the drug. The epidemic led to authorities making a drastic and controversial decision – the decriminalization of the personal use and possession of all illegal drugs. Over the winter semester, University of North Texas students traveled to Lisbon as part of a two-week faculty-led Study Abroad program to study the country’s radical approach to providing harm reduction services to individuals with substance abuse disorders.

“As students learned more about the impact of decriminalization and harm reduction on Portugal's drug users, they realized the value of treating substance use disorders as a de-stigmatized, health-related community concern instead of a criminal one – this approach allows individuals to seek treatment when they are ready and at a time when their treatment will be most successful,” said Dr. Rachita Sharma, senior lecturer in the College of Health and Public Service (HPS) Department of Rehabilitation and Health Services and clinical director of UNTWELL. “Thus, students got an opportunity to experience firsthand the importance of removing stigma so that people who use drugs can reach their drug-free goals.”

Fifteen students from HPS and the College of Liberal Arts and Social Science kept journals as they visited governmental and non-governmental organizations to learn more about the country’s harm reduction policies and services. In Lisbon, they visited the European Drug Monitoring Center, which is responsible for tracking drug use patterns across all of the EU nations. They even spoke one-on-one with Dr. João Goulão, the creator of the controversial decriminalization approach to treating substance use that has been implemented in countries around the world.

“Depending on the type of offense, offenders are given a warning, have to pay a fine or they have three days to appear before a health commission comprised of healthcare workers like counselors, mental health and drug addiction specialists, doctors and nurses, social workers and even lawyers – basically a healthcare court,” said Wendy Mincer-Summers, doctoral student and counselor for UNTWELL. “They talk to the offender and offer them drug treatment options, available support options and most importantly, harm reduction free of charge. That was one of the take-aways for me – unless we provide help that is truly attainable and free of charge, nothing will really change. Drug addiction is a mental health issue and not only are good counselors hard to find, ones that work for free are non-existent.”

Upon completion of the study abroad course, students wrote a paper about what they learned and how it could apply to the United States. Mincer-Summers says what she learned on the trip has forever changed her opinion on drug addiction.

“Where most of the other students discussed how this type of change would never happen based on our healthcare system, understanding harm reduction has led me to seek out other types of support systems here in the U.S.,” she said. “Peer support specialists are up and coming and we have a program at UNT that exemplifies that. Basically, I have a different take on evidenced-based practices because I saw unconventional ones that work far better than some that exist currently.”

HPS Dean Neale Chumbler says experiences through the UNT International Study Abroad Office provide students with immeasurable insight into other cultures and practices and gives them unique learning opportunities.

“This is an excellent example of students being able to develop new ideas based on experiences they wouldn’t be able to have here in the U.S.,” Dr. Chumbler said. “They were able to witness an innovative approach to harm reduction and not only get an in-depth look at Dr. Goulão’s plan in action, but even spoke with him themselves. It’s just another way HPS provides excellence in education.”