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February 28, 2024

New Global Mental Health and Well-being Initiative Encourages Creativity and Collaboration

There has never been a more urgent time to prioritize mental health and well-being and devise innovative strategies for advancing health equity worldwide. On February 8, 2024, the Global Mental Health and Well-being Initiative formally launched with an inaugural event at Georgetown University’s Riggs Library on “The Evolution of Global Mental Health Research: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are Going.”

Abstract painting of a person with colors and birds flowing from the head
Abstract painting of a person with colors and birds flowing from the head

Prioritizing An Urgent Need

Mental disorders are increasingly being recognized as a leading cause of disease burden. According to the WHO, globally, mental disorders account for 1 in 6 years lived with disability, with those with severe mental health conditions dying 10 to 20 years earlier than the general population. This burden is being further exacerbated by complex global challenges such as heat, epidemics, hurricanes, poverty, violence, and racism, which impede mental health and well-being both in the United States and around the world.

In 2023, the Georgetown University School of Health invited faculty to submit unconventional, interdisciplinary proposals to advance knowledge and/or test potential solutions to seemingly intractable problems. With mental health concerns on the rise globally across individuals of all ages, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the proposal for a Global Mental Health and Well-being Initiative stood apart.

Shabab Wahid, an assistant professor in the School of Health’s Department of Global Health who serves on the initiative’s steering committee, has spent years working on and studying not only the causes of distress and psychiatric suffering in various contexts but also effective mental health interventions. He hopes that this new initiative will bring to light issues too-often ignored. As Wahid explains, “The prevalence of mental health conditions and the burden of suffering from them has been historically neglected in favor of more ‘visible’ conditions; this is what advocates refer to as the moral failure of humanity.”

An Interdisciplinary Approach

The Global Mental Health and Well-being Initiative reflects Georgetown University’s strengths in interdisciplinary collaboration through its framing as well as its activities. Steered by an advisory board, the initiative has devised an impressive line-up of Georgetown professors from psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, medicine, global health, and policy to deliver seminars on global mental health from varied perspectives. This interdisciplinary approach to mental health and well-being is evident in the initiative’s mission:

“We envision global mental health and well-being with expansive and inclusive framing. With mental health, we incorporate constructs of well-being and flourishing, alongside ideas and experiences of distress and suffering. Simultaneously, we adopt a more fluid and inclusive definition of global to recognize how global flows of power, people, information, and things are constantly in flux, and how global and local are irrevocably connected in an ever-globalizing world.”

Wahid points to the social determinants of well-being to explain why an interdisciplinary approach is at the core of global mental health.

“The way patients describe their internal experiences is heavily influenced by socioeconomic factors as well as cultural norms individual to each person and context, which makes the work from other disciplines very relevant to global mental health.”

Immersing Students in Research

Each fall and spring semester, the Global Health Institute (GHI) solicits projects from global health faculty at Georgetown and then matches student fellows to these projects through a rigorous application process. For the fall 2023 semester, Wahid submitted a research project proposal on behalf of the initiative and was matched with Janeeta Shaukat (H’24), a senior majoring in global health and minoring in education, inquiry, and justice.

As a fall 2023 GHI student fellow, Shaukat had the opportunity to work closely with Wahid and other members of the initiative’s steering committee, getting an insider’s perspective as they prepared for the formal launch this month. In addition, she was able to collaborate in research activities and engage in scientific writing. As part of the fellowship, she worked with Wahid and School of Foreign Service Professor Emily Mendenhall on the Ecological Grief project in Kenya, which examines potential connections between environmental distress and serious conditions like depressive and anxiety disorders. The research also engages policymakers, landowners, and business owners in Kilifi, Kenya, to understand concerns about climate change's impact on health and relevant policy challenges.

With graduation approaching quickly, Shaukat appreciated being able to gain valuable career skills and take part in a memorable mentoring experience.

“As a student in global health, I found it empowering to apply theoretical concepts learned in the classroom to contribute to this initiative actively. I am genuinely enthusiastic about the potential of this endeavor to embody the spirit of cura personalis [care of the person] and shed light on the vital global efforts addressing mental health and well-being.”

Expanding Collaboration with the Georgetown Community

Following its inaugural event, the initiative is now looking forward to more opportunities for collaboration and engagement across Georgetown. Faculty and staff can join as affiliates of the initiative and take part in global mental health study groups and thematic workshops, and students can participate in research projects, contribute to the initiative’s website with thought leadership, ask for mentorship, and join volunteering activities. Those interested can learn more by directly contacting the initiative.

In addition, the initiative hopes to foster calm and comfort by adding art and creativity to campus. For example, during the spring 2024 semester the initiative will host an art campaign, “From Ill-Being to Well-Being and the Liminal States in-Between,” that invites students to express global mental health and well-being in more unconventional ways, such as through painting, sculpture, poetry, plays, song, and more. Students can register for the competition on the initiative’s website and enter submissions by April 18, 2024.

In the future, the initiative plans to build a rigorous graduate curriculum focused on global mental health utilizing interdisciplinary pedagogy. Mendenhall, who serves as the editor of Global Mental Health: Anthropological Perspectives, has been another key member of the initiative’s steering committee. She emphasizes the initiative’s ambitions to incorporate a wide range of faculty members and students at Georgetown.

“We hope to build a graduate program around the initiative, collaborating with several faculty and programs around the university, too. Georgetown has so many impressive faculty devoted to mental health and well-being, and we see this program as one way to thread us all together.”

Understanding mental illness involves navigating a complex interplay of biology, psychology, societal factors, and individual circumstances. As a result, global mental health has emerged as a dynamic field of research and practice, which is illustrated in the range of faculty and students interested in global mental health and well-being across Georgetown campuses. There is great energy behind this initiative and great value in fostering and sustaining mental well-being among individuals and communities worldwide.

Photo courtesy of freepik