Mental health, discrimination a key focus for Asst. Professor Parvati Singh

A psychiatric epidemiologist, Singh studies the impact of discrimination on mental health

Kristen Mitchell
Parvati Singh

Parvati Singh came to the College of Public Health in fall 2021.

Meet Parvati Singh, an assistant professor of epidemiology focused on how sudden changes in the socioeconomic and health policy environment affect population mental health. 

Singh shared how she found her passion for research and her advice for students trying to identify their public health career interests.

What drew you to the field of public health?

Growing up in India, my father was a pediatrician in the army. Our dinner table talks used to be around health, and my father would take me on his ward rounds in the evening. I was sure I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up, but that didn’t work out (fortunately!). I decided to study biomedical engineering, which would keep me in touch with the health side of things. 

We did these projects in undergrad where we designed our own equipment. When I was doing that, I realized these technologies were out of reach for 70% of India. I decided I needed to turn my attention to under-resourced areas. That led me to pursue a post-graduate diploma in rural management where they really immerse you in the realities of the segment of India that lives in extremely deprived conditions. 

When did you start incorporating a focus on policy?

I worked on World Bank projects on maternal and child nutrition. I would travel to villages and do community-based engagement to help create mechanisms where women could become financially independent to achieve better health outcomes. I realized I would need a master’s in public policy if I wanted to increase the scope of my work. 

I was exposed to the evaluation aspect of public policy at University of Texas at Austin. I found that fascinating — using data and analytical thinking to generate evidence on what is working and what is not. I did my PhD at the University of California-Irvine where I was exposed to the field of mental health. That is something I had not been exposed to through my work in India, where mental health remains underappreciated. In the U.S., it’s not perfect, but you have better data, more resources, expertise and policies designed to improve mental health. 

My PhD was during a time where I think the U.S. was going through a reckoning. Public discourse around population-level reactions to mass events like economic recessions or police brutality was starting to be discussed through the lens of “What it does to racial disparities in mental health.”  That resonated with me a lot. I could connect with it to a certain level growing up as a girl in India. I and a lot of women I know have been through numerous experiences where we could have been harmed because of how we were perceived. There are a lot of parallels to that in America with race. I decided to invest in studying how these phenomena play out and the toll of persistent discrimination on mental health.

How did sudden changes in the socioeconomic and health policy environment become an area of interest for you?

When I started learning about methods for understanding a health policy or a population shock and its impact on health outcomes, one of the challenges in believing my own evidence was the potential of reverse causation. For example, if you want to say that job loss is bad for mental health, in a lot of cases, we don’t know what came first. Was it poor mental health that led to the job loss, or was it job loss that led to worse mental health? 

These big questions can be studied if something happens outside of our daily lives — a shock that disrupts the system independent of the population mental health status at the time. Economic recessions, racial unrest, political elections and policies such as the Affordable Care Act are examples of such disruptions and I remain deeply interested in examining the effects of these “shocks” on population health outcomes. 

How have the challenges of the last few years guided or shaped your work?

Early in the pandemic I published research on how there seems to be an association between spending time online searching about COVID-19 and generalized anxiety disorder scores. I also co-authored a paper on coping using substances with my colleagues at UC-Irvine. Right now, I’m working on a paper which I think will be very close to my heart that looks at racial disparities in psychiatric emergency department visits for schizophrenia immediately after the police killing of George Floyd. 

Are there any big questions that guide your research?

The overarching question that guides my research is the impact of economic and social factors on health outcomes. Within that, I also study factors that might reduce risk for adverse health outcomes. Some of those attenuating factors are cash or income transfers to vulnerable communities. Cash transfers may be conditional (e.g. the Earned Income Tax Credit) or unconditional (e.g. the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend or policies such as Universal Basic Income). Others are expansion of certain kinds of community health centers and access to services. Mostly, I want to study how various types of social and economic exposures impact different groups, motivated by historic evidence and practices.

What is your advice for students trying to identify their career interests in public health?

When you’re browsing social media or watching the news, what topics draw your interest unconditionally? What do you like to talk about, to think about, without there being a grade or an exam attached? Look out for those moments where you feel incredibly connected and invested in certain topics or issues. Those topics may help students identify their future trajectory in public health.

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About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond. The College's divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy. It is ranked 29th among all colleges and programs of public health in the nation, and first in Ohio, by U.S. News and World Report. Its specialty programs are also considered among the best in the country. The MHA program is ranked 8th, the biostatistics specialty is ranked 22nd, the epidemiology specialty is ranked 25th and the health policy and management specialty is ranked 17th.