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AUW, Harvard, Yale faculty collaborate for Global Mental Health course
Chittagong, Bangladesh
11, Jun, 2015

The Asian University for Women in Chittagong has launched a special summer course on Global Mental Health for its undergraduate students studying liberal arts and sciences. The five-week course focuses on the historical treatment of mental illness; mental health in local and global cultural contexts; positive psychology; the effect of violence on mental health; and the integration of maternal and child health with mental health care delivery. It is being taught by a series of distinguished visiting faculty from Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine, National University of Singapore and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, as well as one of AUW’s own resident faculty members.  Thirty students from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam have enrolled, noting their interest in psychology and eagerness to study an unfamiliar topic.

The course, originally proposed and initiated by Ms. Saima Wazed Hossain, member of the World Health Organization’s Expert Advisory Panel on Mental Health, was designed by a steering committee chaired by Professor Arthur Kleinman – the Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University; and Professor of Medical Anthropology in Global Health and Social Medicine and Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School. It has been supported with grants from the Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard South Asia Institute, and the Ladd Family Foundation.

Students at the Asian University for Women presenting to the class on the influence of social change and globalization on mental health disorders in their home countries.

Students at the Asian University for Women presenting to the class on the influence of social change and globalization on mental health disorders in their home countries.

This week, Dr. Anne Becker of Harvard Medical School concluded her section of the course with a focus on autism and dementia, highlighting the importance of the life course approach. Dr. Becker is Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Her field research has taken her to Fiji, where she has worked on the effect of media on disordered eating in teenage girls; and Haiti, where she was the co-principal investigator on a novel study on integrating mental health care into schools.

When asked why she feels a course on Global Mental Health for women at AUW is important, Dr. Becker shared, “Mental disorders impose an enormous health, economic, and social burden globally and yet there are persistent gaps between available resources – economic, knowledge, and service-related – and needs. Although there are effective treatments for mental illness, often treatment delivery and community outreach remain challenging. Thus, there will be great future benefit from the ideas, innovation, and advocacy of young women toward meeting these challenges both in their respective regions and globally.”

Already taking up the call to action, students have come up with their own ideas about how mental health care can be improved in their countries. Recounting years of stigma that her family experienced after a family member developed a mental health condition, a student from Bangladesh gave a suggestion for how negative views of mental disorders could be lessened. She shared, “I really wish in my country the Minister of Education would take some measures like adding some chapters on these mental issues in textbooks… We see it as controversial because we don’t learn about it in childhood. If we get to know these things from our childhood in a textbook, it would be normal like other lessons and we could see it positively – people might have mental disorders but it’s ok. This is the role that education can play.” As an example of changing attitudes after learning more about mental health, one student from Nepal noted that, “[For] physical illness, people get a lot of support, but not when they have mental illness. That should be changed. I got to know this after I took this course.”

In one of the early class activities, students gathered in groups to discuss the ways mental health illnesses are viewed or treated in their countries. A student from Myanmar described how for most ailments, people in her village go to a local healer or priest, and the dominating explanation for mental illness is the presence of an angry or negative spirit trapped inside the patient. This explanation was common among students from different countries, with conventional treatments including breathing smoke from chili peppers, wearing amulets with prayers wrapped inside, and even being beaten with hot iron rods. In the context of these community responses, Professor Varuni Ganepola, who teaches at the Asian University for Women, stressed the potential for mental health service integration into primary care hospitals: simply going to a hospital would not broadcast one’s condition to the community. This idea of increasing access to mental health care resonated with students, some of whom recounted witnessing zoo-like conditions at mental health hospitals where patients were chained to beds or visitors asked them to sing and dance.

Professor Varuni Ganepola has been teaching at the Asian University for Women since 2008. She is originally from Sri Lanka and covered the section of the course on the history of mental health treatments in Asia and the world.

Professor Varuni Ganepola has been teaching at the Asian University for Women since 2008. She is originally from Sri Lanka and covered the section of the course on the history of mental health treatments in Asia and the world.

Mental health disorders account for the largest portion of the global burden of disease, yet individuals who suffer from conditions such as depression or schizophrenia nearly always face enormous stigma from their communities, amounting to what Professor Arthur Kleinman calls social death. Although they come from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, the students in the Global Mental Health class have found a common thread through their communities in the stigma that individuals with mental illness suffer.

“It’s very powerful to hear these young women discussing similar challenges that their home communities face, whether that is in terms of stigma, lack of resources, or even just misconceptions,” said Miranda Morrison, Associate Director of Program Development at the AUW Support Foundation and Course Coordinator for this class. “For many of them, this is the first time they can talk about these issues in an open environment, and already students are telling me they want to do research on mental health in their countries, or that they are now considering going into this field for higher studies.” Professor Ganepola, who opened the Global Mental Health course with a week on the history of mental illness treatments in the region and globally, reflected, “This course represents an opportunity for us to learn more from the global commonalities around the world and more closer to home. Using the wisdom of global shared experience, also from international faculty with varied perspectives, will help students who are interested in doing something in the field of mental health, to develop a robust and realistic understanding of what is happening around us.”

This course is intended to trigger wider discussion and understanding of the mental health situation in the region, and the urgency for appropriate societal and institutional responses to aid in addressing this grave yet seldom adequately recognized public health crisis.  With students from over 15 countries, the Asian University for Women hopes to play a pivotal role in ushering in informed wider discussion on this topic.