Global Mental Health Capacity Building at the 2012 ISTSS Annual Meeting

The annual meeting of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), this year held in Los Angeles, wrapped up this weekend. This year’s theme, Beyond Boundaries: Innovations to Expand Services and Tailor Traumatic Stress Treatments, was in large part a response to a lack of global and cross-cultural perspectives at most ISTSS meetings. This year the planning was directed by two global mental health researchers, Debra Kaysen (University of Washington’s Global Mental Health program)and Wieste Tol (Johns Hopkins). Thanks to Debra and Wietse and their deputies (disclosure: the latter crowd includes yours truly), global perspectives were given the main stage. This was most obvious in two of the keynote addresses, one by global mental health luminary Vikram Patel (Kings College London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and founder of Sangath) and longtime transcultural psychosocialist Joop de Jong (the founder of Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), professor at VU Amsterdam (which is the link), the University of Amsterdam, Boston University, Rhodes University in South Africa). (A request to academics from the blogosphere: If you’re going to hold appointments at multiple institutions, please host your own website — finding which link to post ain’t easy.)

In addition to the international perspectives, it was good to hear the issue of capacity building addressed head on. This was addressed in the keynotes, but it also had it’s own symposium. Theresa Betancourt (Harvard) chaired “Capacity Building in Low-Resource Settings,” and she laid out the issue as movement from “relief to resource,” which sums it up nicely. Speakers included Vikram Patel, Mary Fabri (formerly of Heartland Alliance in Chicago), and Joop de Jong. One of the key problems in global trauma practice is that mental health professionals from high income countries fly in to low and middle income countries (LMICs), do their thing for a few weeks or a few months, then fly out — leaving nothing in terms of increased ability to deal with the long-term issues related to disasters, let alone in terms of preparation for subsequent ones. Capacity Building in Low-Resource Settings was a discussion of how to guard against this all too frequent phenomenon.

Vikram Patel noted that a key to “scaling up” access to empirically supported treatments was identifying “primary tools of mental health… skilled human beings.” Patel is well-known for advocating “task-shifting” to “nonspecialists” — in the US we would call them paraprofessionals. His preferred term is “counselors,” as it is a now globally familiar term because of the widespread use of counselors for medication adherence issues in HIV/AIDS work and breastfeeding (the two global public health predecessors Patel looks to as models for global mental health). Important “soft skills” (i.e., non-content specific capabilities) that are basic to counseling include: engaging patients, assessing their mental health, suicide assessment, and knowing when to refer to more skilled professionals. The next stage of training involves advanced competencies that are disorder-specific, treatment-specific, and health context specific. Acquiring these competencies involves brief (a few days) classroom training and then moving trainees on to supervised field work (a few months). One of the major stumbling blocks to sustainability of any counseling program is the lack of consistent supervision. Patel has moved to a model that includes peer supervision with web-based (e.g., Skype) supervision done remotely. He noted that as very often counsellors do much more therapy than senior supervisors, peer supervision is often better than supervision by senior intervention researchers.

These themes were taken up by Mary Fabri and Theresa Betancourt in explications of their clinical interventions efforts with women in Rwanda and former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, respectively. A common problem was remote supervision. Certainly Skype and other web-based communication helps connect experienced clinicians, but connection speeds being what they are — or rather, what they are not — in many lower income countries, these are often simply not feasible. Fabri makes frequent trips, and Betancourt gets by with large telephone bills for weekly supervision.

Only just touched upon was how these programs, sustained largely with external funding, can be integrated into a countries’ national health strategies. One particularly sticky issue related to certification. Joop de Jong noted that “professionalizing” lay workers has historically been accompanied by nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) ignorance to local politics. The inability to engage established local authorities makes them (understandably) angry, which then leads to barriers to certifying those who have been working with NGOs following post-conflict periods (and may extend to them being unable to access educational resources as well). It is during these “post-post-conflict” periods where the sustainability of programs is proven.

Left untouched was the issue of building research capacity. But research capacity building was not left undiscussed at the conference. Later in the evening I had the good fortune to be at dinner with Marc Jordans, the Research Director at HealthNet TPO (also at Kings College London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), who has made research capacity a priority. He explained the process as excruciatingly slow, as the challenges are largely educational. Here’s where the distinction between lower income countries and middle income countries is critical. Middle income countries (MICs — e.g., India, Peru) tend to have university systems, and therefore a pool of educated researchers in a field that uses research methods applicable to mental health research (.e.g, sociology, anthropology, public health); lower income countries (LICs — Sierra Leone, Nepal), however, often have one or two universities, and a very small pool of people with the base level research understanding to build upon. In essence, groups like HealthNet TPO are engaged in educational development, which, like all development work, is a multi-decade proposition. Jordans added, however, that the payoff for homegrown LIC researchers with a PhD is great, given that they are one of a few in their countries with the expertise and legitimacy to advise governmental and international organizations working in their regions.

2 Responses to “Global Mental Health Capacity Building at the 2012 ISTSS Annual Meeting”


  1. 1 in2mentalhealth November 15, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Hello Andrew. Thanks for this great post and summary of the discussions. Since I was not able to attend the meeting, I appreciate this sharing of information. I was especially intrigued by the ‘relief to resource movement’. I’ve been working for MSF on a few occasions, and did not always felt comfortable with this ‘fly in and fly out’ capacity building. I’m sure there are better ways to support LIMCs and populations in adversity. Hope this discussions will be continued! Roos Korste


  1. 1 Global Mental Health Capacity Building at the 2012 ISTSS Annual Meeting | Trauma Recovery Trackback on November 13, 2012 at 2:46 am

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