#studyGMH: A Focus on Capacity Building

Student Month Blog Series: Africa Focus on Intervention Research for Mental health

   Professor Crick Lund is the Principal Investigator of Africa Focus on Intervention   Research for Mental health (AFFIRM).


We were extremely excited when, in September 2010, we first heard that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) had announced a funding opportunity to establish regional Hubs for intervention research on mental health in low and middle-income countries. This was an opportunity not only to conduct trials on task sharing for mental health, but also to establish networks and build the capacity of a new generation of emerging researchers in the field.

From previous work on the Mental Health and Poverty Project (MHaPP), we had learnt that capacity building involves individuals and organizations. In other words, if we were really going to build capacity in a sustainable way, we shouldn’t just train individuals, but also establish accredited teaching programmes that could outlive us as individuals. For some time I had been working with Alan Flisher, Leslie Swartz, Ashraf Kagee and others to develop a joint collaboration between the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch University: a Centre for Public Mental Health. Through this process, we had gone about developing the curriculum for a Masters programme in Public Mental Health, which was finally accredited by both universities in 2010. The purpose was to train clinicians and researchers in sub-Saharan African countries to conduct research on mental health policy, services and the social determinants of mental health: applying the tools of public health to mental health on the continent.

So the timing of the NIMH call for applications couldn’t have been better. Here at last, through the NIMH was a funding source for Fellowships that could be linked to a very exciting new teaching programme. And so we built the partnership that was to become the Africa Focus on Intervention Research for Mental health (AFFIRM). I was very privileged to work on the AFFIRM proposal with pioneers in the field of psychiatric epidemiology - Prof Atalay Alem from Addis Ababa University and Prof Ezra Susser from Columbia University - and together we established a network that included colleagues in Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. We included in our proposal to NIMH a budget to fund 5 MPhil in Public Mental Health students each year for 5 years (1 each from Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe) – with the goal of producing 25 Masters graduates by the end of the 5 years of the AFFIRM project. The AFFIRM proposal was funded and we began the project in August 2011, with our first batch of AFFIRM MPhil Fellows starting in January 2012.

“The students continue to inspire us with stories of how the programme has made a difference in their lives, and in the lives of people who can use and benefit from their research.”

What are the entry requirements for the MPhil AFFIRM Fellowship?

Candidates for this programme should be in possession of an Honors degree or post-graduate diploma in Public Mental Health or a cognate discipline. In addition, candidates should:

  1. have experience of working in a mental health, health or development related field for at least three years
  2. be employed within a managerial or leadership role, or have the capacity for such a role
  3. show evidence of adequate English language and writing proficiency for postgraduate academic studies

How is the MPhil programme structured?

The degree requires:

  • The completion of a 3-week residential training module in research methodology for public mental health in Cape Town
  • The preparation of a dissertation of a minimum of 20, 000 words, in either monograph or publication ready format

There are a number of advantages to running the programme in a blended learning format (combining face-to-face teaching with distance supervision):

  1. Students are able to learn some core skills in the intensive 3-week teaching, but then have to apply these skills in their own country setting. This requires adaptation of study methods to the needs of their own country.
  2. Because the study is designed for the local country setting (students apply to the course with a 2-page proposal of what they want to research), it addresses a key local service need or knowledge gap.
  3. Students are less likely to stay on in South Africa after their studies, and are more likely to remain in their countries, thereby minimizing brain drain.

What is the 3 weeks of teaching in Cape Town like?

Although students are brought together from a range of settings and have not met each other before they arrive, they quickly find that they have a lot in common. Most come from under-resourced mental health service settings in their own countries. They all are driven by a passion to learn more and develop their research skills. And all are committed to improving the lives of people living with mental illness in their countries. The result is a buzz: a dynamic, interactive learning experience, which leaves both teachers and students feeling inspired and energized.

Often the hard work starts when the MPhil students return to their home countries and have to start the process of conducting their own research. They will have worked on the outline of their study protocol with their supervisors while in Cape Town, but now they have to set aside time on a regular basis to finalize their protocol, get ethics approval, gather the data, analyze it, and write up. This requires discipline and commitment. To support the students, we have introduced monthly webinars, led by the course convener Dr Katherine Sorsdahl. The webinars are well attended and include an opportunity to give Katherine and the students’ peers an update on progress with their study. It also includes some additional “content” teaching for example on conducting literature searchers, mental health stigma and health systems research.

We have all learnt a great deal as the MPhil programme has evolved, and rely on constant feedback from supervisors and partners in the AFFIRM network, to further improve things. We are very keen to continue, with the momentum we have created, and build on our early successes. The students continue to inspire us with stories of how the programme has made a difference in their lives, and in the lives of people who can use and benefit from their research.


Read blogs by current and past fellows as they tell us how AFFIRM changed their lives and shaped their careers.

Training, education and capacity building
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