If you’re not familiar with Georgia Tech’s Computing for Good (C4G) initiative, now’s a good time to learn more about it. Why? Because along with the Carter Center, they are trying to transform how mental health is approached in one of the most challenging regions in the world — Africa.
Africa is a place not known for its stellar healthcare, as many of the continent’s nations struggle just to provide for the basic needs of food, water and shelter for their people. Mental illness continues to carry the heavy burden of prejudice and stigma.
Liberia is one of the world’s poorest and worst off nations in the region. Still recovering from a 14-year civil war where acts such as murder and rape (somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of women in Liberia were sexually assaulted during the civil war!) were commonplace, the Liberian people are struggling to get back on their feet and make sense of the tragedy they’ve lived through. Nearly 40 percent of the population experiences a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The country’s mental health needs — and the stigma surrounding mental illness — are daunting. As the Carter Center’s Janice Cooper, Ph.D. notes, “To most Liberians, people with a mental illness are useless for society. Some think that mental health conditions are contagious, or that victims are under the spell of witchcraft.”
Many Liberians suffer from mental illnesses (the exact number is unknown) but have virtually nowhere to turn to receive cost-effective treatments (or any treatment at all). In a country of nearly 4 million people, there is only one psychiatrist.
Enter Georgia Tech’s Computing for Good initiative and our friends at the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, who are working together to help change mental health treatment in Liberia by helping train a new group of clinicians to better meet the needs and challenges of Liberia’s population:
Since 2010, Georgia Tech has collaborated with the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program Liberia to provide the software and support that the Center and the Liberian government need to monitor the nation’s progress in building a sustainable mental health care system. The Carter Center’s five-year project in Liberia is training a cadre of local mental health clinicians and working to reduce stigma and discrimination against mental illnesses.
While the Liberian government supports these efforts, one of the major challenges faced is how to identify where the greatest areas of need are and most effectively use the country’s limited resources to address those needs.
That’s where the computers come in: to better track patient outcomes, which in turn, can help the Liberian government in policy development and planning.
Dr. Ellen Zegura is the chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science and one of the C4G co-leads. She took a personal interest in the project, and assigned various aspects of the program’s technological needs to student teams (both undergraduate and graduate students) in her Fall 2010 Computing for Good class.
Dr. Zegura and her C4G team of undergraduate and graduate students spent months designing software that allows the Center and the Liberian government to anonymously track patient outcomes to evaluate the clinician training program and conduct health surveillance and monitoring.
Her team also extensively researched computers, smartphones, and other devices to see which would be most appropriate for the country’s uncertain electricity supply and extremely humid and hot tropical climate.
Liberian student Louvina Toejae working on a computer.
Fast-forward a year later, and the first group of the Mental Health Liberia graduates received training in the devices and software systems developed by Dr. Zegura’s C4G students, working in close coordination with the Carter’s Center staff. In August, the first class of 21 nurses and physician’s assistants graduated from the specialized training devised by the Carter Center with C4G’s support. The graduates of the program are given a newly established credential from the government deeming them “mental health clinicians.”
And while this sort of change won’t happen overnight, the goal is to have 150 mental health clinicians working in every region in the country to help meet the needs of the Liberian people.
At a time of the year when we gather with friends and family to rejoice in all of our abundance, it’s good to keep in mind the struggles of so many others around the world. We don’t live in a society where the nearest psychiatrist may be hundreds of miles away, and we should be grateful for the access to mental health care that most of us enjoy in America.
Georgia Tech and the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program should be commended for a truly innovative approach to tackling this overwhelming problem in one of the poorest places on Earth. The work they are doing there is an example of how a little good + technology can go a long, long way.
The first graduating class of the Mental Health Liberia program.
Read more about the collaboration: Professor “Computes for Good” with Carter Center’s Mental Health Project in Liberia
Watch a video about Mental Health Libreria: Helping Liberia Tackle Stigma and Expand Mental Health Services
Learn more about Georgia Tech’s Computing for Good (C4G) initiative