£2.75m NIHR Global Mental Health Research Group launched on interventions for youth with depression and anxiety in African countries

10 Aug 2022

‘Youth in Mind’ – Interventions for Youth with Depression and Anxiety in African Countries

We are delighted to announce the launch of ‘Youth in Mind’, a new NIHR Global Health Research Group. Prof Melanie Abas of King’s College London and Associate Prof Dixon Chibanda of the University of Zimbabwe and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, with members of the new Global Health Research Group, have received £2.75m to learn how best to treat depression and anxiety in youth aged 15-24 in Ghana and Zimbabwe. The new research group includes academics and partners from the University of Zimbabwe, the University of Ghana (country lead Dr B Weobong), the Navrongo Health Research Centre, Kamuzu University of Health Sciences in Malawi (Country Lead Dr M Kumwenda) and King’s College London, together with youth and representatives from government and non-governmental organisations.  

Depression and anxiety prevent youth from productivity and innovation and from reaching their full educational and social potential.  This is critical in African countries, where 60% of the population are aged under 25. Depression and anxiety are key risk factors for self-harm and for suicide, which is the third leading cause of death in this age group.  There is increasing knowledge about ways to help youth deal with the types of thinking, behaviour and emotions commonly seen in depression and anxiety. These approaches could feasibly be delivered by non-specialists in low-resource settings.

The plan is to work with youth and caregivers to adapt and test a stepped-care intervention for youth with depression and anxiety, which is tailored to the needs of communities in Ghana and Zimbabwe. 

The receipt of this funding will build upon the work of The Friendship Bench founded by Prof. Chibanda, to provide targeted interventions to a younger audience –15-18-year-olds enrolled in Ghana’s free senior high school system and 15–24-year-olds in Zimbabwe in schools, colleges, and community health settings. The study aims to evaluate the clinical and economic benefits of the intervention through running a clinical trial in senior high schools in Ghana, and feasibility studies in Zimbabwe. The Youth in Mind Group is eager to learn more about the ‘active ingredients’ of interventions for depression and anxiety in young people. They will build research capacity on youth mental health in Ghana, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Professor Abas of King’s College London said, “This funding presents a tremendous opportunity to bring together a new dynamic group of researchers to expand the work that we have been undertaking with adults. There is a huge unmet need to provide mental healthcare to young people in African countries. There are many unanswered research questions about what works best to get youth with persistent depression and anxiety back on track with their education and social development, and we look forward to filling some of these gaps”

Associate Professor Dixon Chibanda, of the University of Zimbabwe and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Director of the African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI) said, “This will give us an opportunity to consolidate our collective lessons from the past 10 years as we move towards scaling evidence-based interventions in Zimbabwe and beyond. This work is further strengthened by the formal endorsement of the mental health initiatives in Zimbabwe through the WHO Special Initiative.”

By the end of our program, the team aims to have four completed PhDs for African early career researchers in youth mental health (in Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Malawi), two post-doc fellowships completed, and ten publications in open access journals, with at least 80% of these to be first or senior authored by an African researcher. The longer-term vision is a strong interdisciplinary group of African-UK researchers in youth mental health, and for the stepped-care intervention to be taken up by governments and NGOs to improve youth mental health.

Both Zimbabwe and Ghana have seen calls to develop more structured offerings for youth mental health care, even before the onset of the COVID19 pandemic. The planned research is intended to align with the stated priorities and planned pilot activities being led by each country’s Ministry for Health, or by local and well-established NGOs.

Zimbabwe, for example, hopes to integrate mental health care into existing health and community services, scaling up the Friendship Bench for working age adults, and introducing a government pilot called ‘Catch Them Young’ which will provide psychological screening and first aid in schools.

Ghana is scaling up basic WHO mental health care training, and the NGO, BasicNeeds, is piloting mental health literacy training in nine schools.

The Navrongo Health Research Centre in Ghana has been a leading institution conducting quality health research through the Navrongo health and demographic survey for more than twenty years.

Key investigators and partners involved in this project:

Dr Benedict Weobong (Country Lead, University of Ghana)

Dr Moses Kumwenda (Country Lead, Kamuzu University of Health Sciences, Malawi)

Dr Jermaine Dambi (University of Zimbabwe)

Dr Tarisai Bere (University of Zimbabwe)

Dr Franklin Glozah (University of Ghana)

Prof Philip Adongo (University of Ghana)

Dr Dzifa Attah (University of Ghana, Medical School)

Dr Rosemary Musesengwa (University of Oxford)

Mr Peter Yaro (BasicNeeds Ghana)

Dr Abraham Aduro (Navrongo Health Research Centre)

Mrs. Gifty Francisca Ben-Aryee (Ghana Health Service)

Dr. Raymond Aborigo (Navrongo Health Research Centre)

Ms Karen Webb (The Organization for Public Health Interventions and Development (OPHID))

Ms Nicola Willis (Zimbabwe)

Prof. Andrea Danese (King’s College London)

Dr Kimberly Goldsmith (King’s College London)

Dr Barbara Barrett (King’s College London)

Dr Nadine Seward (King’s College London)

Dr Patrick Smith (King’s College London)

Prof Rashida Ferrand (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

For more information, please contact suzanne [dot] dodd [at] kcl [dot] ac [dot] uk

To learn more about our previous work on The Friendship Bench please visit https://www.friendshipbenchzimbabwe.org/

For extra information, please see

https://mosaicscience.com/story/friendship-bench-zimbabwe-mental-health-dixon-chibanda-depression/

Chibanda D, Weiss HA, Verhey R, et al. Effect of a Primary Care–Based Psychological Intervention on Symptoms of Common Mental Disorders in Zimbabwe: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2016;316(24):2618–2626. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.19102

This research was funded by the NIHR (NIHR133384) using UK aid from the UK Government to support global health research. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the UK government.