Strengthening the Mental Health Workforce with eLearning

Roos KorsteSome countries have only one psychiatrist, and as many as half of developing countries have fewer than five mental health researchers. The World Health Organization’s calculations indicate that in low- and middle-income countries more than 239,000 additional mental health workers are needed, but only 54.5% of all low-income countries have specific psychiatric education.

One approach to addressing these shortages is through eLearning.

Academic courses and degrees
There are many institutes and companies throughout the world that offer online degrees and certificates, but the education level, cost, and international recognition varies. In general only programs with international funding or nongovernmental organizations’ involvement are affordable for the average student in low-income countries.

Additional training of mental health staff and policy-makers

Special leadership-competency courses and trainings are needed to facilitate capacity-building and shifts in mental health care design. A few organizations offer this kind of education online, but most address the public health field in general. Additional online education about information and communication technology and applications are also essential.

Supportive supervision and on-the-job training
In many low-income countries the current (or new) mental health policy is one wherein highly educated—often urban—professional workers manage and support lower-skilled workers—often rural or local community health workers. There are fruitful examples of this distance support in the public health sector, but again, mental health examples are rare.

Ugandan health workerInformal learning
There are many free, informal learning opportunities—Open Source software, Open Education resources, and communities of practice—but there are few examples that focus on mental health topics. Although one can stumble upon thousands of mental health hits from international journals, wikis, and blogs—and learn a lot—there are no certificates or degrees connected to them, and there is a chance that one can get lost in the overload of information and opinions.

Can eLearning strengthening countries’ mental health care capacity?
Yes, countries can increase the mental health workforce and the countries’ capacity to deliver services through a cost-effective and efficient method. However, at this time, the field still seems fragmented and immature.

In most low-income countries lay health practitioners are and will be the “spine of mental health care.” Targeting them in education programs can give mental health care in low-income countries the boost that is so urgently needed.

Recommendations for the future

  • Advocate and lobby to get online mental health education onto institutes’ and policy-makers’ health care agendas. Central planning and alignment of accreditation by an international health organization can help to avoid more fragmentation.
  • Consider rural students’ needs and circumstances, including their financial (dis)abilities, unreliable electricity delivery, harsh enviornments for maintaining electronic devices in good working order, and a possible preference for mobile learning.
  • Plan for ways that students can practice through role-play and receive direct feedback on their communication skills. Design learning programs with a blend of distance learning and on-the-job training.

Roos Korste is a psychologist and trainer, as well as the founder of in2mentalhealth. This blog post is excerpted from her original post.

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Photo 1 courtesy of Roos Korste. Photo 2 by Carol Bales (Ugandan health worker).