Ahtisham Younas lists compassion as one of his main research interests.
In fact, the Faculty of Nursing assistant professor prefers a compassionate approach over empathy when it comes to improving health-care experiences for society’s marginalized people.
“Empathy has a narrow focus,” said Dr. Younas, who earned a PhD in nursing in 2022 and became a faculty member that year. “Empathy asks us to try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. How can we do that? We really can’t.”
He knows the idea might sound somewhat counter-intuitive, especially coming from a nurse.
“To help with all the social justice issues we are facing, I think compassion is the solution. Compassion is much broader and enables us to do our best to recognize, understand and alleviate suffering in the best possible way,” he said. “I believe compassion gives us that lens to see suffering from someone’s lived experience.”
How Dr. Younas came by his interest in compassion and social justice is a story well worth telling, one that begins in the city of Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where he grew up.
“My mother worked hard for all of us because she wanted all of us to get an education.”
He’s one of six siblings raised by a single mother who supported her large family by working as a maid in different homes.
“My father didn’t live with us. It was an abusive relationship,” said Dr. Younas “We were from a poorer class and my mom never had any education, she didn’t get a chance, but she worked hard for all of us because she wanted all of us to get an education.”
Which they did.
Dr. Younas studied nursing in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
On his brother’s recommendation, he looked to further his education in Canada and applied to Memorial University.
In 2015 he enrolled in the master of nursing (MN) program.
Impact of work experience
Dr. Younas hadn’t intended to follow up his MN with a PhD, at least not right away.
But the process of having his nursing credentials recognized left him with time on his hands, and a need to earn money to support himself.
He took a job as a development support worker at a home care agency, working with clients who had mental health disabilities.
“I worked with this population and that got me to thinking about how they could be cared for,” he said. “They face a lot of stigma and discrimination.”
At the same time, Faculty of Nursing members encouraged him to apply to the doctoral program.
“He poured his heart out to me and I thought, maybe this is the population I need to work with.”
Once accepted, Dr. Younas knew he wanted to focus on compassion in his research work.
His supervisors challenged him to choose a target population. What followed was serendipitous.
“I had an encounter with this poor man outside at a Pakistani restaurant where they were serving free meals on Mondays to people who couldn’t afford it,” he said. “The man started talking to me and I stayed and listened and tried to understand where he was coming from. I tried to offer comfort.
“He poured his heart out to me and I thought, maybe this is the population I need to work with,” Dr. Younas continued. “No one is talking about compassion for this population.”
Strategies to reduce barriers
Dr. Younas’ doctoral research looked at compassion through the eyes and experiences of clients of the Gathering Place, a community health centre in St. John’s.
Specifically, he explored how clients who are marginalized in society and dealing with complex issues have experienced compassion, or a lack of compassion, from nurses and other health professionals.
Those insightful conversations, and follow up with stakeholders including health professionals, resulted in the development of strategies aimed at reducing barriers to practising compassion.
What does he want this research to achieve, besides helping bring a little more compassion into the world?
“Having that one good encounter with a nurse or another health professional could give you the interaction you deserve, that your needs are being acknowledged.”
In a continuation of his dissertation, Dr. Younas is working with an advisory group to refine and contextualize the strategies to a Newfoundland and Labrador context, and then test them.
Learn more about Dr. Younas and his research.