Conference Tackles Gaps in Sub-Saharan Africa's Child Behavioral Health Services

PUBLISHED ON August 11, 2016

From July 12-15, 2016 in Kampala, Uganda, the McSilver Institute partnered with Columbia University’s International Center for Child Health and Asset Development (ICHAD) and The AfriChild Centre of Excellence on the African Child to host the first annual Conference on Child Behavioral Health in Sub-Saharan Africa: Innovative Research and Interdisciplinary Partnerships to Scale Up Evidence-Based Practice in Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya.

The conference launched the National Institute of Mental Health-funded study, African Center for Collaborative Child mental health implementation Research (ACCCR), which establishes a global, trans-disciplinary center focused on reducing child mental health service and research gaps in Sub-Saharan Africa. Presided over by the First Lady of Uganda, Honorable Janet Museveni, the conference brought together policy makers, practitioners, researchers, and community members to begin to collaboratively develop and ultimately test theoretically informed, culturally appropriate, evidence-based and youth- and family-focused service models.

Conference Leadership

Over the first two days, presenters and participants from Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and the United States addressed what has so far been done, where the challenges and gaps have been, and what the way forward should be. In their welcoming remarks, Dr. Mary McKay of the McSilver Institute, Dr. Fred Ssewamala of ICHAD, and Joyce Wanican of AfriChild emphasized that widespread child behavioral health issues in Sub-Saharan Africa are associated with the daily challenges youth in the region face, including bereavement due to loss of parents to AIDS, extreme poverty, conflict, displacement, illness, or physical and sexual victimization. Until now, they said, development and scale-up of evidence-based behavioral health services for children and youth have been hampered by limited research in the field and a lack of evidence-based services which are culturally appropriate in the African context – exactly the obstacles the conference and ACCCR were designed to address.

In her keynote address, Ms. Museveni, who doubles as Uganda’s Minister of Education and Sports, highlighted the significance of child mental health in health programming, and voiced the government’s commitment to developing a solid policy framework for the betterment of Ugandan children, working in tandem with colleagues across the African continent.

Researchers from Africa and the U.S. highlighted results from already ongoing projects on child mental health across the African continent and others reported on existing capacity building initiatives. However, the constant theme noted was that the limited number of trained mental health researchers and practitioners in Sub-Saharan Africa along with the stigma associated with mental health problems and the lack of partnership among those African researchers who are most skilled, has left many service and research gaps.

Conference Participants

With the premise that collaboration is key to filling to gaps, the conference enabled the policy makers, practitioners, researchers, and community members in attendance to begin to learn from each other, establish a common ground of knowledge and expertise, and strengthen partnerships for the next steps of the project. Breakout sessions featuring researchers and NGO leaders from each of the target countries focused on identifying the opportunities to support child behavioral health. Local government and NIH leaders shared their perspectives on the opportunity to align child mental health research, service and policy partners, and researchers from South Africa and Uganda, who have established strong relationships with local stakeholders, shared their experience designing effective and efficient research in child behavioral health. All of the conference PowerPoint presentations are available for download in PDF form at http://mcsilver.nyu.edu/ssaconference.

This conference also launched a Global Behavioral Health Fellowship program for new investigators and PhD candidates committed to behavioral health research in Sub-Saharan Africa. Each of the nine fellows was paired with a senior scholar to collaborate on conference-related research studies and publications. In the conference’s final two days, these teams of investigators and fellows made site visits to gain practical insights that will inform implementation of the ACCCR’s ongoing work.

Conference Participants

The conference was the start of an annual tradition of coming together to share findings, develop partnerships, and marshal the political will for improved child behavioral health services in order to close the children’s mental health research and service gaps in Sub-Saharan Africa. The work of the ACCCR to fill those gaps has now officially begun.