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Research Careers in Global Mental Health

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Meeting Summary
Bethesda, Maryland

Sponsored by:
Office for Research on Disparities and Global Mental Health (ORDGMH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

On July 30, 2010, the Office for Research on Disparities and Global Mental Health (ORDGMH) in the Office of the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) invited students, post-doctoral trainees, and early stage investigators, as well as researchers, educators, practitioners, and federal government staff to discuss research careers in global mental health. This gathering of trainees and researchers occurred in response to the rapidly growing interest in global mental health as a career option.

Within the United States, the last decade has seen an unprecedented growth in university-based global health programs and student enrollment in global health courses. This surge parallels a larger trend of increased commitment to global health on the part of the federal government and through the efforts of private philanthropic organizations. The 2007 Lancet special issue on global mental health highlighted the urgent need to include mental health concerns in the global public health agenda, and which emphasized the critical role of research in meeting mental health needs, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.  

NIMH Director Thomas Insel, M.D., opened the meeting with an overview of how NIH is organized, the agency’s goals, and the specific role of NIMH in funding and supporting mental health research worldwide.  Ricardo Araya Ph.D., M.R.C.Psyc., and Ritzuko Kakuma, Ph.D., provided case examples of global mental health research with policy implications in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, respectively, in their plenary presentations.  Pamela Y. Collins, M.D., M.P.H, director of ORDGMH outlined career pathways in global mental health, key institutions in the global health arena (e.g. the World Health Organization) and funding opportunities along the path to becoming an independent researcher. An interactive session permitted trainee participants to ask questions on topics ranging from the intricacies of institutional review board approval for cross-national studies, to the challenges of jumpstarting a global mental health research career in comparison to more traditional basic or clinical research career paths. Afternoon sessions focused on mentorship and research funding opportunities. Successful global mental health researchers, training program directors, and representatives from non-governmental organizations described their training and research activities, and advised meeting participants on topics including cultural competence, mentoring, and work-life balance.

The following themes emerged from the meeting presentations and discussions:

  • The recognition that “global” research occurs in rich and poor countries, in the United States and internationally;
  • The need for bold and innovative research;
  • The need to consider culture, context, and ethics when designing and conducting research;
  • The need for in-country visits to better appreciate needs and context of the local population; 
  • The need  to seek multiple mentors and expand one’s professional network;
  • The need to appreciate that both researchers and the communities they study can learn from each other;
  • The need to understand  the funding mechanisms for investigators at different stages in the career ladder and the importance of seeking assistance from NIMH program staff ;
  • The need for sustainable and reliable career development  in global mental health; and,
  • The need for a standardized process for obtaining an institutional review board approval. 

The meeting provided an opportunity for young investigators interested in making a transition into global mental health to address their concerns and clarify their expectations, while also enabling NIMH to gain an understanding of the unique professional needs of early career investigators who share an interest in this emerging field.  In addition, the meeting laid the groundwork for continuous dialogue, mentorship, and career development as NIMH seeks to build a pipeline of researchers to tackle the unique challenges of global mental health through innovative research.

For more information, please contact Jude Awuba, M.P.H., C.H.E.S., at jude.awuba@nih.gov or 301-443-9650.