AMARI 2018 ASM: “Building networks for mental health research excellence in Africa”

The African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI) held its Annual Scientific Meeting (ASM) on the 15 and 16 March 2018 in Malawi at the Bingu Wa Mutharika Convention Centre in Lilongwe. The two-day event was held under the theme, “Building networks for mental health research excellence in Africa” and was attended by a pool of prominent global mental health researchers and psychiatrists, delegates from the Malawi government, representatives from various health organisations, AMARI stakeholders and research fellows, among others.

Addressing delegates at the official opening ceremony, guest of honour, Malawi Minister of Health Dr Atupele Muluzi acknowledged the role that AMARI is playing in African mental health research and how research is key in spearheading development in health care.

“My ministry’s plan to improve mental health involves investing in intervention and sustainable treatment interventions using locally driven research findings to which AMARI is playing a significant role. Development in health care is driven by research and that is why AMARI is investing in young researchers from Ethiopia, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe, in order to build a strong regional network to reduce clinical mental health cases”, said Dr Muluzi.     

In his key note remarks at the scientific meeting, AMARI Director Dr Dixon Chibanda noted that AMARI exists to develop a sustainable network of young excellent African mental health researchers whose researches are conscious of their local African contexts. AMARI’s overarching aim is to narrow the prevalent gap in African mental health research. Dr Chibanda further said the ASM seeks  to celebrate AMARI’s success and to deliberate on future researches.   

“The objective of AMARI is in essence to develop excellence in leadership, training and science in Africa. Developing capacity in mental, neurological and substance use disorders in Africa is critical because there is a large treatment gap for these conditions in Africa. What AMARI aims to do is to use rigorous research to contribute towards narrowing this research gap.

“Some of the research work that we have been carrying out involves developing and validating tools which are appropriate for our cultural setting and developing different kinds of integration which will be used to actually narrow this gap. We are gathered at this ASM to celebrate our success and to determine the map and pathways for future research that will be carried out,” said Dr Chibanda.

The two day summit was richly packaged with mental health deliberations, knowledge exchange, networking, learning, research fellows’ presentations and guest presentations by renowned global mental health researchers that include Prof Ricardo Araya, Prof Martin Prince, Prof Crick Lund, Prof Bronwyn Myers, Prof Frederick Hickling and Dr Victoria Mutiso.

Amongst the topical issues to come out of the ASM was the serious need for comprehensive policy and civil engagement with mental health to alleviate the challenges in the provision of mental health services that include shortage of mental health workers and poor services to care for those affected by mental illnesses. According to recent World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, Africa has one psychiatrist for every 1 ½ million people and it is the same for clinical psychologists. To reduce the gap, there is need for government and civil sector to support training of more African psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, psycho-therapists, mental health nurses and mental health clinical officers and doctors.   

AMARI Advisor Prof Atalay Alem gave testimony of how government support has transformed mental health in Ethiopia. He noted that, ‘’Commitment by the ministry of health has supported mental health programmes in Ethiopia through progressive health ministers with positive attitudes towards developing mental health." Co-Director Centre for Global Mental Health, Kings College London Prof Ricardo Araya concurred with Prof Alem in the crucial role that government has in making mental health sustainable when he noted that ‘the USA has more psychiatrists because their government gives lots of incentives to psychiatrists.’  

Other topical discussions explored and interrogated various ways that can be adopted to integrate mental health with largely funded health care programmes such as HIV/AIDS, Maternal and Child care. Another issue was the need for extensive sensitization of mental health to the public because most people do not understand mental health disorders thereby stigmatize those affected by the illness.   

Prior to the ASM the AMARI research fellows underwent some capacity building training courses developed and delivered under AMARI’s Academic Career Development Series (ACES) programmes aimed to equip the research fellows with research and career development skills. The training sessions which included Presentation and Mentoring skills under ACES, and Career Pathways were conducted by globally acclaimed educationists who include Dr Christopher Merritt, Prof Frances Cohan, Prof Paul McCrone, Prof Crick Lund and Prof Shelda Debowski, amongst others.

One of the AMARI research fellows from the University of Zimbabwe, Malinda Kaiyo who presented her research topic: ‘Effects of antenatal depression on birth and neonatal outcomes: scale validation and longitudinal study’, acknowledged the role that AMARI has played in her career development, she said, “AMARI has equipped me with soft skills in time management and planning my career pathway. It has also helped me in networking through creating platforms for meeting with experts in maternal mental health such as Dr Robert Stewart.”

AMARI is one of the 11 programmes funded through  Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS) in Africa, which is being implemented by the African Academy of Sciences with the support of Wellcome and the UK Department for International Development. The initiative is a consortium of four institutions namely Addis Ababa University - Ethiopia, University of Malawi - Malawi, University of Cape Town - South Africa and University of Zimbabwe - Zimbabwe. AMARI is currently funding 37 mental health research students derived from these four institutions. The inaugural AMARI ASM was held in 2017 in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and it has since then been developed into an annual calendar event with the rendezvous for the next convention set for Ethiopia in March 2019.

Contributed by AMARI communications