Project Ember: nurturing community mental health care across the globe

Grassroots potential

One in four people will develop a mental health condition in their lifetime. Yet in many parts of the world, people living with mental health conditions have no access to treatment. Their experiences are complex and vary across cultures and geographies. As a result, there is no panacea for global mental health, no vaccine that can be rolled out universally.

Where governments can struggle to build person-centred mental health systems and to reach the most vulnerable populations, people across the world are responding to the needs of their communities by developing powerful, grassroots interventions.

These community-based innovations are uniquely equipped to overcome stigma and engage people in meaningful, culturally sensitive and lasting ways. Their diverse methods are centred on the people they work with, drawing on local expertise and grounded in a deep understanding of their communities.

However, they face serious barriers to sustaining and scaling up their work. Despite the welcome surge in attention and funding for global mental health in recent years, there is still very little support available for the many small organisations providing crucial mental health services within communities. Often operating in isolation and without any visibility, these innovators lack networks and resources. This is stopping millions of people benefiting from powerful mental health interventions.

Enter Ember

Project Ember is a collaboration between MHIN and the SHM Foundation created to help grassroots mental health organisations to overcome these barriers so that their work can be strengthened, sustained and scaled up. It combines the SHM Foundation’s expertise in developing and growing their own innovation, Zumbido Health, and MHIN’s breadth of knowledge across the global mental health field, with a strong network of researchers, policymakers and international non-governmental organisation experts.

Over the last year, we’ve worked with five grassroots innovations providing care in different parts of the world.

  1. Buena Semilla runs women’s circles by and for indigenous communities in Guatemala
  2. Comprehensive Community Mental Health Programme (CCMHP) trains community health workers to run mobile mental health clinics in Nigeria
  3. FaNs for Kids educates families of children with developmental disorders in Pakistan to support and advocate for their needs
  4. PDO Kenya (Psychiatric Disability Organization of Kenya) works to raise awareness and destigmatise mental health, while providing peer-to-peer support
  5. Phola uses storytelling and art as therapy to empower people who’ve experienced trauma in South Africa

Through our work together, we have developed the Ember Health Check, a methodology for identifying the gaps, challenges or barriers these organisations face, and a toolkit of participatory approaches to help overcome them.

We work directly with teams to co-design solutions to the challenges they face. Our interdisciplinary team combines expertise from academia, technology, business, anthropologists, communications and implementation, forming a rich well of insight that supports and strengthens organisations according to their specific needs. We then draw on MHIN’s expertise to link them into a large global network of mental health researchers, practitioners, policymakers, donors and advocates so that they can share and benefit from this varied pool of knowledge.

What next?

The coming months will be an exciting time for Ember. We will further develop and refine our model by working with more innovations around the world, while seeking a diverse range of partners who can come alongside us to help nurture and grow innovation in grassroots mental health.

We believe there is no one solution to the global mental health challenge. Nor is there a single way to expand mental health services. Achieving universal mental health coverage cannot be done through scale-up alone. We must also sustain what is working, adapt and adopt models for new settings and, where possible, transform existing strategies so that they can fulfil their potential. By pursuing each of these strands can we move towards a world in which everyone has access to the mental health care they need. This is what Ember is setting out to do.

To stay up-to-date on all things Ember, follow us on twitter @Ember_Incubator and Instagram @ember_stories and watch this space.

Innovations on MHIN

  • Women’s Circles: a co-designed, community-based group psychosocial intervention for marginalized women in Guatemala
  • CCMHP: Comprehensive Community Mental Health Programme
  • The FaNs for Kids Project

Main image credit: Proyecto Buena Semilla

South America
Maternal and neonatal health
Children and adolescents
Primary care
Empowerment and service user involvement
Treatment, care and rehabilitation
All disorders
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