Posts Tagged 'development research'

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.

NIMH, LMICs, & CHIRMH: Funding for global mental health research

Back in March of this year I wrote about Vikram Patel’s call for more international mental health research:

As for research, Dr. Patel noted that 90% of mental health research is done in the developed North (and within that, most in the US), and insisted that that must change. Research must guide practice in order to avoid the mistake of simply applying US or European models elsewhere. Along these lines, he pointed to recent funding interest in global mental health, even by the US’s NIMH (specifically, a recent blog post by director Thomas Insel titled “Disorders without Borders” — good grief!), a research body not known to fund many international projects.

Since then the National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH) has come up with more than just ominous blog titles. As I was trolling program announcements (“PAs” — the mechanism by which the National Institutes of Health says to researchers what they are really interested in paying for) earlier today I stumbled across several intended to fund research outside of the global North (that’s North America and Europe), or in the language used in these PAs, “LMICs” — “low- to middle-income countries.” Most of these were offered in a variety of funding amounts, from $50,000 to $250,000 (US dollars) per year over 2-5 years.

Here a a few. There’s the basic public health PAR-10-278: Global Research Initiative Program, Basic/Biomedical Sciences, intended to

promote productive development of foreign investigators from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), trained in the U.S. or in their home countries through an eligible NIH funded research or research training grant/award.

For neurologists there’s PAR-11-031: Brain Disorders in the Developing World: Research Across the Lifespan, which

encourages exploratory/developmental planning grant applications proposing the development of innovative, collaborative research and research training projects, between high income country (HIC) and low- to middle-income country (LMIC) scientists, on brain and other nervous system function and disorders throughout life, relevant to LMICs.

There’s even an ethics PA: PAR-10-174: International Research Ethics Education and Curriculum Development Award,

applications from institutions/organizations that propose to develop masters level curricula and provide educational opportunities for developing country academics, researchers and health professionals in ethics related to performing research involving human subjects in international resource poor settings.

(Not a bad idea for folks in the North involved in international research either, I might add.)

By far the biggest news among these titles is the new RFA-MH-11-070: Collaborative Hubs for International Research on Mental Health (U19). “U series” grants (look at the “U19″ in parentheses at the end of the title) are meant to pay for academic infrastructure — scholarly institutes and centers that produce a lot of research and are thought to be indicators of universities’ general research prowess. Here’s the full “purpose” section:

The National Institute of Mental Health invites applications to establish Collaborative Hubs for International Research on Mental Health (CHIRMH).  This program aims to establish three regional hubs to increase the research base for mental health interventions in World Bank designated low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) through integration of findings from translational, clinical, epidemiological and/or policy research.  Each regional hub is to conduct research and provide capacity-building opportunities in one of six geographical regions (i.e., East Asia and the Pacific; Europe and Central Asia; Latin America and the Caribbean; Middle East and North Africa; South Asia; Sub-Saharan Africa).  The purpose of the CHIRMH program is to expand research activities in LMICs with the goal of providing the necessary knowledge, tools, and sustainable research-based strategies for use by government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and health care institutions to reduce the mental health treatment gap.  The mental health treatment gap refers to the proportion of persons who need, but do not receive care.  As a group, awardees will constitute a collaborative network of regional hubs for mental health research in LMICs with capabilities for answering research questions (within and across regions) aimed at improving mental health outcomes for men, women, and children.

The treatment gap for mental disorders across the world is large and leads to chronic disability and increased mortality for those affected.  Research is needed to identify effective treatment and prevention strategies to close this gap. Mental health research that ultimately enables effective services to preempt, prevent, and treat mental disorders requires both infrastructure and partnerships.  Tackling the urgent challenges of the treatment gap demands effective collaborations among researchers, mental health service users, mental health service providers, and government agencies that will implement and sustain services.  Therefore, a goal of this FOA is to support research partnerships and activities in LMIC settings that will stimulate research to address the prevention and treatment of mental disorders and ultimately increase the evidence base for mental health interventions.

Notably, the PA states that “This program is not intended to support research that can be conducted primarily in and/or by United States or other high income country institutions.” This has the potential to be the start of something big, a US-funded development effort for global mental health. The NIMH is committing $2 million to this effort in 2011, and applicants are eligible for awards up to $500,000 per year for up to 5 years. (Letters of intent are due December 21 and applications due January 21, 2011, for those of you thinking about applying.)

Randomistas, development economics, and the poetry of evaluation

Last week’s New Yorker featured an engaging portrait by Ian Parker of MIT development economist Esther Duflo, perhaps the leading light among that field’s “randomistas.” These (mostly) young economists have made their mark on their profession by applying randomized control trials (borrowed from medicine) to development strategies. This really shouldn’t surprise anyone — randomized control trials have been used for other types social programs (e.g., delinquency prevention) for years now, and given that economics is about human behavior it’s surprising that economists haven’t embraced this earlier.

Also familiar to behavioral scientists are the objections to assigning participants at random to experimental and control groups.

“You shouldn’t be experimenting on people.” O.K., so you have no idea whether [your programs] work–that’s not experimental?

The former is met far to infrequently with the latter. Someone comes up with an idea for some intervention, they announce their intentions and put that idea into practice, and all of a sudden it is accepted as the right thing to do… and to test whether it works better than doing nothing (which really means “better than engaging the variety of things people do that you don’t know about”) thus becomes the wrong thing to do. That’s some sloppy ethics, at best.

The one objection to randomized control trials mentioned in the article that might hold water is that an intervention shown to be empirically supported in one context might not be empirically supported in another due to variation in ecological and temporal phenomena. Of course, the logical solution is more experimentation, not less. In their psychosocial programs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Center for Victims of Torture has instituted what Research Director Jon Hubbard calls “rolling control groups” to address the problem of changing context. The situation in conflict zones is often very fluid, and so if a program is shown to be better than doing nothing during one intervention period (6 weeks for CVT’s program) that doesn’t mean that it will be better during the next. So Hubbard came up with the rolling control: at the beginning of each intervention period, the program accepts and screens 125% of their capacity, then randomly assigns 25% to a wait list control; after the intervention period they give post-tests for each group, viola! They have a small-scale randomized control trial that shows their funders that they are monitoring the effectiveness of their programs for each cohort.

The article on Duflo ends with a couple paragraphs on the art of the evaluator’s profession that I found particularly striking — but admittedly, maybe only a data nerd like myself would love:

“It can’t only be the data,” Duflo said, showing a rare willingness to generalize. “Even to understand what data means, and what data I need, I need to form an intuition about things. And that process is as ad hoc and impressionistic as anybody’s

It can’t only be the data, but there must be data. “There is a lot of noise in the world,” Duflo said. “And there is a lot of idiosyncrasy. But there are also regularities and phenomena. And what the data is going to be able to do–if there’s enough of it–is uncover, in the mess and noise of the world, some lines of music that may actually have harmony. It’s there, somewhere.”

Play31 and the demand characteristics of assessment

Last night I had a great conversation with Jakob Lund, head of Play31, an NGO that sets up soccer matches with a local NGO in Sierra Leone. Essentially, Play31 sets up these games in such a way as to provide settings in which participants feel empowered to address reconciliation between communities there (go see the website for more). Jakob’s currently interested in evaluating his program, so he came to chat about approaches, measures, etc.

Jakob told me a great story, one that  is, I think, typical of assessing aid programs in general, and may also have something to say about our ability to judge the sustainability of programs. On his last visit, he and his local colleagues went around talking to the different communities in which Play31 works about how people feel about their program, what they get out of it, what they don’t, and finally, what would happen if the funding for these games went away. To the local NGO representative, people in villages uniformly said that if funding for the games disappeared they would get together  what resources they had and keep holding these matches; to Jakob,: “Oh no, without this program no games would be held.”

The demand characteristics of who asks the questions are strong.

Two new links on aid and development work

Two recent webpostings (one blog, one interview) caught my attention for their attention to the complex realities of doing aid work in developing nations.

Thanks to Rahim Kanani of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard for clueing me in to a fascinating interview with Amaka Megwalu, veteran development aid worker and current graduate student at Harvard.

Friends and former and current (respectively) post-docs Jeannie Annan and Eric Green have thier development research (Jeannie and husband Chris Blattman are the PI’s) profiled in Freaknonomics blog this week (a big deal, actually).

Enjoy.


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