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Este artículo fue originalmente publicado por la NBCC en The Professional Counselor Journal (TPC), Vol. 4, Número 1. El Dr. J. Scott Hinkle, autor del artículo, otorgó la autorización para la publicación del mismo en la Revista Enfoque Humanístico.

Population-Based Mental Health Facilitation (MHF):

A Grassroots Strategy That Works


J. Scott Hinkle

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 450 million people worldwide live with unmet mental health problems. Additionally, one in four people will experience psychological distress and meet criteria for a diagnosable mental health disorder at some point in their lives. This data speaks to the need for accessible, effective and equitable global mental health care. Available mental health resources are inequitably distributed, with low- to middle-income countries showing significantly fewer mental health human resources than high-income countries. The need to proactively address this care-need gap has been identified by WHO and various national organizations, including NBCC International (NBCC-I). NBCC-I’s Mental Health Facilitator (MHF) program addresses the global need for community-based mental health training that can be adapted to reflect the social, cultural, economic and political climate of any population, nation or region.


Keywords: global, mental health, international, mental health facilitator, MHF, population, community, WHO


Developing and promoting mental health services at the grassroots level while also maintaining a global perspective is, to say the least, an overwhelming task. The National Board for Certified Counselors’ International division (NBCC-I) has responded to this task in two deliberate steps. Initially, NBCC-I collaborated with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse to establish the global Mental Health Facilitator (MHF) training program. The MHF program addresses the international need for population-based mental health training that can be adapted to reflect the social, cultural, economic and political realities of any country or region. Once the program was effectively addressed by WHO and NBCC-I as a viable strategy to reduce mental health issues on a global basis, NBCC-I independently developed a curriculum and implementation method that has begun to make a promising global impact (Hinkle, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2013; Hinkle & Henderson, 2007; Hinkle & Schweiger, 2012; Schweiger & Hinkle, 2013).


For years the global burden of mental disorders on individuals, families, communities and health services has been considerably underestimated (Chisholm et al., 2000; Murray & López, 1996a, 1996b; Ustün & Sartorius, 1995). Resources for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders have been slow in development, insufficient, constrained, fragmented, inequitably distributed, and ineffectively implemented (Becker & Kleinman, 2013; Chen et al., 2004; Gulbenkian Global Mental Health Platform [GGMHP], 2013a; Hinkle & Saxena, 2006). While mental and neurological disorders comprise only 1% of deaths worldwide, they account for 8–28% of the disease burden (GGMHP, 2013a; Murray et al., 2012; Prince et al., 2007; WHO, 2004a), with the majority of these disorders occurring in low- to middle-income countries.


Mental Health: An International Problem


Most mental disorders are highly prevalent in all societies, remain largely undetected and untreated, and result in a substantial burden to families and communities. Although many mental disorders can be mitigated or are avoidable, they continue to be overlooked by the international community and produce significant economic and social hardship. Moreover, in all countries there is an enormous gap between the prevalence of mental disorders and the number of people receiving care (Becker & Kleinman, 2013; Saraceno et al., 2007; Weissman et al., 1994; Weissman et al., 1996; Weissman et al., 1997; WHO, 2010a, 2010b). In less-developed countries, more than 75% of persons with serious mental disorders do not receive treatment (Demyttenaere et al., 2004). Unfortunately, psychiatry’s best efforts at training physicians to provide mental health care within the global context are simply too small for such a large, global problem (Furtos, 2013; Hinkle, 2009, 2010b, 2012b, 2012c; Patel, 2013). The focus has been too long on medicine and not on local communities (Patel, 2013). In fact, every person’s health care is local (Unützer, 2013). The major issue with the current provision of care is, therefore, the limited size and training of the community health care workforce (Becker & Kleinman, 2013).


Globally, one in four people will experience psychological distress and meet criteria for a diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their lives (WHO, 2005). This ominous data speaks to the need for accessible, effective and socially equitable mental health care (Hinkle & Saxena, 2006). WHO estimates that more than 450 million people worldwide live with mental health problems; these numbers are no doubt bleak. More specifically, WHO estimates that globally more than 154 million people suffer from depression, 100 million are affected by alcohol use disorders, 25 million have schizophrenia, 15 million experience drug abuse, and nearly one million people die each year by suicide (Saraceno et al., 2007). Depending on the source, unipolar depression has been estimated to be in the top four causes of loss of disability-adjusted life years across the six socially diverse continents (Murray & López, 1996a, 1996b; Vos et al., 2012).


Furthermore, it has been estimated that as many as 25% of all primary care consultations have a mental health component (Goldberg & Huxley, 1992; Warner & Ford, 1998; WHO, 2006a). Mental disorders are related to a range of problems, from poverty, marginalization, and social disadvantage to relationship issues such as divorce, physical conditions such as heart disease, reductions in economic productivity, and interruption of child and adolescent educational processes (see Alonso, Chatterji, He, & Kessler, 2013; Breslau et al., 2013). At the developmental level, at least 10% of children are considered to have mental health problems, but pediatricians and general medical practitioners are not typically equipped to provide effective treatment (Craft, 2005). With mental disorders contributing to an average of 20% of disabilities at the societal level, the evidence is clear that these disorders pose a major challenge to global health (Alonso, Chatterji, et al., 2013; Alonso, Petukhova, et al., 2013). Moreover, the associated economic burden exceeds that of the top four non-communicable diseases (i.e., diabetes, cardiovascular, respiratory and cancer; Bloom et al., 2011).


Unfortunately, most international mental health systems are dominated by custodial psychiatric hospitals that deplete resources for treatments with little efficacy (WHO, 2005). In contrast, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should scale up services for community mental health with programs that reflect credible evidence of effectiveness (see Patel, 2013; Patel, Araya, et al., 2007). Murthy (2006) has indicated that there is no global community mental health blueprint to achieve universal mental health access, and that effective community workforce strategies need to be matched to each country’s unique situation. It is an ecological fallacy to try to understand people and mental health issues outside the environments in which they exist (Galea, 2013). Thus, a radical shift is urgently needed in the way mental disorders are managed, and this clearly includes community-based care that can be effectively implemented via non-health as well as health sectors (GGMHP, 2013a, 2013b; Hinkle, 2012b).


Global Community Mental Health


Serious mental disorders are generally associated with substantial role disability within the community. About 35–50% of mental health cases in developed countries and approximately 75–85% in less-developed countries have received no treatment in the 12 months preceding a clinical interview. Due to the high prevalence of mild and sub-threshold cases, the number of untreated cases is estimated to be even larger. These milder cases, which can be found in communities all over the world, require careful consideration because they are prone to progress to serious mental disorders (WHO, 2010a, 2010b; WHO World Mental Health Survey Consortium, 2004).


It is important to note that in most low- to middle-income countries, community workers are often the people’s first line of contact with the health care system (Anand & Bärnighausen, 2004; Hongoro & McPake, 2004). However, there is a long history of issues with the sustainability of community programs (Walt, 1988), and the lack of community service providers with the necessary competencies to address needs remains the most significant barrier to the provision of mental health services. Although human resources are the crucial core of health systems, they have been a neglected developmental component (Hongoro & McPake, 2004), particularly in the field of mental health. WHO’s “Mental Health Atlas” (2005) specifies a critical global shortage of mental health professionals (e.g., psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, psychologists, social workers, neurologists). Similarly, an informal international survey of clinical mental health, school, and career and work counselors by NBCC-I indicated that the professional counselor workforce has yet to be adequately identified on a global scale (Hinkle, 2010b). Moreover, extant mental health services are inequitably distributed; lower-income countries, where behavioral risk factors tend to cluster among people of lower socioeconomic status, have significantly fewer mental health human resources than higher-income countries (Coups, Gaba, & Orleans, 2004; WHO, 2005; WHO World Mental Health Survey Consortium, 2004).


In low- to middle-income countries, human resources are clearly limited, and the quality and productivity of the existing workforce is often challenged. Investment in human resources for community mental health care is insufficient in absolute terms as well as in distribution (Hongoro & McPake, 2004). For instance, the global average for physicians is 170 per 100,000 people, but in Nepal and Papua New Guinea there have been as few as five doctors for this ratio (WHO, 2004a). In 2003, approximately 36% of doctors’ posts and 18% of nurses’ posts were unfilled around the world (Bach, 2004). Moreover, general practitioners are not typically adept at providing mental health care, including detection, referral and management of mental disorders (Chisholm et al., 2000). Therefore, partnerships between formal primary and informal community health care systems need to be more prevalent, effective and integrated.


Two facets for integrating mental health into primary care are (a) financial and human resources and (b) collaboration with non-health sectors. NGOs, community workers and volunteers can play a significant role in supporting formal primary care systems for mental health. For example, village health workers in Argentina, India and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been trained to identify and refer people for medical assistance. Even countries that have adequate services, like Australia, use local informal services to support mental health patients (see WHO, 2006b). Because psychiatric hospital beds are extremely limited, the demand for mental health services within communities becomes even more critical (Forchuk, Martin, Chan, & Jensen, 2005). Furthermore, early detection and treatment of mental disorders and co-occurring emotional and behavioral problems not only decreases the chance of lower physical health later in life, but also associated costly hospitalizations (Alonso, Chatterji, et al., 2013; Alonso, Petukhova, et al., 2013; Scott et al., 2013).


An urgent, radical change in the way mental disorders are managed and monitored—one that moves away from lengthy institutional hospitalizations and toward population-based mental health care in the community—is needed (GGMHP, 2013a, 2013b; Hinkle, 2009). The need to proactively address this care-need gap from a praxis, or practical, rather than a theoretical approach has been repeatedly identified by WHO and various national and international organizations, including NBCC-I (Hinkle & Schweiger, 2012). Communities in developing countries have historically lacked opportunities for mental health training, skill development, and capacity building (Abarquez & Murshed, 2004); however, long years of training are not necessary for learning how to provide fundamental help for people who are emotionally distressed.


Volunteer community workers are a large untapped community resource of potential service providers for people suffering from problems associated with mental health (Hoff, Hallisey, & Hoff, 2009). Chan (2010) has reported that “there is a widely shared but mistaken idea that improvements in mental health require sophisticated and expensive technologies and highly specialized staff. The reality is that most of the mental, neurological and substance use conditions that result in high morbidity and mortality can be managed by non-specialist health-care providers” (p. iii). The research has substantiated that it is feasible to deliver psychosocial-type interventions in non-specialized health care settings (WHO, 2010a, 2010b). Enhancing basic community mental health services, both informally and formally, is a viable way to assist the never-served. The MHF program is part of a grassroots implementation trend that has already begun in communities around the globe (e.g., Canada, Europe, Africa, Asia, United States; see Hinkle, 2007, 2013; Hoff, 1993; Hoff et al., 2009; Marks & Scott, 1990; McKee, Ferlie, & Hyde, 2008; Mosher & Burti, 1994; Patel, 2013; Rachlis & Kushner, 1994).


A Brief Review of Grassroots Community Mental Health Approaches


Unfortunately, governmental psychiatric hospitals have a long history of human rights violations and poor clinical outcomes (Hinkle, 2010b). They also are costly and consume a disproportionate amount of mental health care monies. In contrast, informal community caregivers are not generally part of the formal health care system; examples include traditional healers, professionals such as teachers, police and various community workers, NGOs, consumer and family associations, as well as laypeople. Informal care is typically accessible because it is an integral part of the community. However informal, this care should not replace the core of formal mental health service provision (Saraceno et al., 2007; WHO, 2010a, 2010b), but serve as a grassroots, adjunctive care system.


For example, beginning as early as 1963, the work of Rioch et al. portrayed community paraprofessionals serving as in- and out-patient “therapists.” Similarly, as far back as 50 years, Albee (1967) reported that the dearth of manpower in mental health services could be lessened by the use of paraprofessionals who could arrange for neighborhood outreach and basic psychiatric evaluations (Hines, 1970).


Likewise, in 1969 Vidaver suggested the development of mental health technicians with generalist skills for lateral and vertical mental health employment mobility. Vidaver (1969) further commented that community colleges were able to train local community helpers for a variety of informal roles in mental health services without years of higher education. Interviewing (i.e., communication), consultation, and community liaison techniques (i.e., referral) were depicted by Vidaver as important general skills for community helpers. One year later, Lynch and Gardner (1970) developed a training program with the goal of training laypeople to be “helpers in a psychiatric setting” (p. 1476), emphasizing communication skills training with a focus on the “front line of operation” (p. 1475) provided by paraprofessionals and professionals providing backup services.


Also in 1970, the U.S. military addressed mental health manpower shortages by increasing the use of paraprofessional specialists who were taught entry-level skills to help soldiers in need (Nolan & Cooke, 1970). Training included conducting interviews, collecting historical, situational and observational data, and developing referral skills to connect the soldier with professional mental health resources. Identifying common mental health problems and relating to problems in a realistic way were included in the training. Program evaluations indicated that trainees “quickly and confidently transpose their course-acquired skills to the job situation” (Nolan & Cooke, 1970, p. 79).


More recently, basic psychological first aid programs have been effective in Bangladesh, where psychosocial support is used in emergency situations (Kabir, 2011). As well, nurses and health care staff have been trained as mental health facilitators in the United Kingdom to recognize depression, anxiety, stress, drug and alcohol problems, grief reactions, and domestic violence; make referrals; and provide support and aftercare. These nurses also assist people with co-occurring disorders and provid mental health promotion in the schools. Furthermore, the nursing profession in the United Kingdom has noted that community mental health care is a particular problem area, resulting in the development of the mental health assistant practitioner as a creative practice strategy to reduce the costs of services as well as improve multi-professional communication based on local needs (Warner & Ford, 1998; Warne & McAndrew, 2004).


Although implementing such grassroots community mental health programs is not easy, global health care organizations have demonstrated greater need to develop innovative uses of informal mental health assistants and facilitators to establish community mental health services (Warne & McAndrew, 2004). In the long run, if the gap in mental health services is sufficiently closed, it must include the use of non-specialists to deliver care (Eaton, 2013; Eaton et al., 2011; Hinkle, 2006, 2009). Such non-specialized workers will have received novel training in identifying mental stress, distress and disorders; providing fundamental care; monitoring strategies; and making appropriate referrals (see Becker & Kleinman, 2013; Hinkle & Schweiger, 2012; Hinkle, Kutcher, & Chehil, 2006; Jorm, 2012; Saraceno et al., 2007).


The Mental Health Facilitator Training Program


Existing data speaks loudly to the need for accessible, effective and equitable global mental health care. However, a common barrier to mental health care is a lack of providers who have the necessary competencies to address basic community psychosocial needs. This barrier has been clearly identified by WHO and various national and international organizations, including NBCC-I (Eaton, 2013; Hinkle, 2006, 2009, 2012c; Hinkle & Saxena, 2006; Patel, 2013; WHO World Mental Health Survey Consortium, 2004; WHO, 2005, 2010a, 2010b).


General MHF Background Information and Rationale


In 2005, officers from NBCC-I met with the director of the WHO Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse to discuss the challenges of international mental health care. As a result of these meetings, WHO selected 32 international mental health professionals to evaluate NBCC-I’s proposed MHF program, with almost 100% supporting its development. Subsequently, the curriculum and master training guide were completed by NBCC-I in 2007. Drafts of the curriculum and proposed teaching methods were piloted on two occasions in Mexico City with mental health professionals from Europe, the Caribbean, Africa and the United States. Additional subject matter experts facilitating pilot development included mental health professionals from Malaysia, Canada, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Turkey, India, Mexico, Botswana, Romania and Venezuela.


The resulting MHF training program draws on a variety of competencies derived from related disciplines, including but not limited to psychiatry, psychology, social work, psychiatric nursing, and counseling. Its eclectic programming and international composition allowed for a flexible training model with expertise drawn from global practices. Because MHF training is transdisciplinary, traditional professional helping silos are not reinforced; skills and competencies are linked instead to population-based mental health needs rather than professional ideologies. Thus, individuals with MHF training (MHFs) can effectively identify and meet community mental health needs in a standardized manner, regardless of where these needs are manifested and how they are interpreted. Mental health and the process of facilitating it is based on developing community relationships that promote a state of well-being, enabling individuals to realize their abilities, cope with the normal and less-than-normal stresses of life, work productively, and make a contribution to their communities.


The MHF training program was first taught in Lilongwe, Malawi in 2008 and has since been taught approximately 108 times by 435 trainers, including 181 master trainers in 20 countries. The MHF program recently expanded to provide mental health assistance in more established countries, as manifested in the program’s current popularity in the United States (Schweiger & Hinkle, 2013). This expansion also marks the completion of an educators’ edition of the MHF curriculum for use in schools with a focus on students, teachers and schooling.


To date, the MHF training program has been implemented globally to enhance mental health care at various levels. At the formal, primary health care level, general medical practitioners provide acute and long-term treatment to individuals with a variety of mental disorders, supplemented by the efforts of individuals with MHF training. MHFs also augment specialized services by functioning within a mental health care team to provide support, targeted assistance, referral and follow-up monitoring (Paredes, Schweiger, Hinkle, Kutcher, & Chehil, 2008). Likewise, informal community care is characterized by community members without formal mental health education or training providing much-needed services. At this level, nonclinical forms of mental health care such as psychological support or strategic problem solving by community leaders, family groups, and local elders (including indigenous healers) are emphasized. MHF training has been used to bridge the gap between formal and informal mental health care where MHFs work within both systems and do so simultaneously (Hinkle, Kutcher, & Chehil, 2006). With due respect to horizontal and vertical considerations, MHFs have augmented traditional, formal inpatient services by working with mental health teams to provide family support and education, monitor follow-ups, and provide practical “in the trenches” assistance (see Figure 1). This is where informal care, including self-care, becomes critical (Murthy, 2006).


Figure 1. Modified WHO Pyramid Framework: MHF (Hinkle, 2013b)


Contextualizing the MHF Program


Most importantly, it is ill-advised to attempt to understand people outside their environments; people must be considered within the characteristics of their respective populations (Galea, 2013). The MHF program is designed to be flexible so local experts can modify components of the training to reflect the realities of their situation. Local stakeholders then identify and include specific competencies in their MHF trainings. As a consequence, consumers and policymakers ensure that MHF trainings provide culturally relevant services to the local population. Furthermore, the MHF training curriculum was conceived as a dynamic document and is revised once each year based on input from local institutions and individuals who provide MHF training. This contextual, organic approach grounds the MHF program in the principle that mental health care is a combination of both universally applicable and context-specific knowledge and skills (Furtos, 2013; Hinkle, 2012a; Paredes et al., 2008). The program consists of integrated knowledge ranging from basic mental health information and promotion to specific, local, culturally relevant helping strategies. The global MHF program provides equitable access to quality first-contact interventions, including but not limited to mental health advocacy, helping skills, and monitoring and referral, all of which respect human dignity and rights, and meet local population needs.


Individuals receiving MHF training represent a broad cross section of the community. Diverse trainee backgrounds increase the possibility of addressing the various gaps in local mental health care, which helps local policy makers, service providers, NGOs and communities meet mental health needs without costly infrastructural investments. Moreover, contextualized MHF training facilitates further development and delivery of community-based care consistent with WHO recommendations for addressing the gap in global mental health services


Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Community Strategies


It is commonly known that top-down approaches across public services generally have limited success. Conversely, long-term strategies that enhance the successful implementation of public mental health services are best when they are centrally facilitated from a locally directed, bottom-up approach (Rock, Combrinck, & Groves, 2001). From both a service delivery and administrative perspective, a bottom-up strategy has its advantages. One obvious benefit is that it requires local stakeholders to articulate objective and verifiable goals that use a “common currency” (p. 44) or terminology (Rock et al., 2001).


Similarly, MHFs have the advantage of serving as community leaders developing “upstream” versus “downstream” care, as well as providing important links to professional mental health care (Hinkle, Kutcher, & Chehil, 2006; Hoff et al., 2009; McKinlay, 1990). MHFs working in communities apply primary prevention principles by anticipating mental health services for people who may be vulnerable. For instance, MHFs in Bhutan provide drop-in peer assistance for young people challenged by rapid changes in their society. When MHF services are available at the secondary prevention level, people with mental health issues can often avoid disruptive and costly hospitalization. MHFs can assist with reducing long-term disabling effects among people recovering from a mental disorder by applying tertiary prevention measures from the bottom up (Hinkle & Saxena, 2006; Hoff et al., 2009). Furthermore, governmental direction from the top needs to intersect with community efforts from the bottom (Isaac, 2013; see Figure 1); and once programs are vetted from the top, they need to be diverted to bottom-up management (Eaton, 2013).


Although community mental health programs may achieve local success, few have been systematically scaled up to serve the needs of national populations. Despite the array of treatments for mental health, little evidence exists regarding their feasibility and effectiveness when integrated into routine care settings among low- and middle-income countries. Even though bottom-up approaches offer advantages, they also require outcome measurements, something that mental health workers have found traditionally burdensome (Rock et al., 2001). For example, evidence-based mental health interventions for people exposed to conflict and other disasters are weak, especially for strategies implemented in the midst of emergencies (Patel, Araya, et al., 2007). Only a small fraction of the clinical research trials regarding mental health treatment have been administered in low-income countries, resulting in a dearth of knowledge about treatment effectiveness in poor, culturally diverse settings (Becker & Kleinmen, 2013). Consequently, the MHF process is currently undergoing an evaluation in two diverse countries on two separate continents to seek evidence for the effectiveness of this training program. This is a critical step in the program’s continued development, because empirical evaluation of lay health workers’ implementation of community mental health services in low- and middle-income countries has been historically insufficient (Lewin et al., 2005). However, if the global strategy is to only collect more information and add to data resources, there will continue to be a gap in human resources.


As planned, individuals seeking MHF training have represented a broad cross section of local society, ranging from school teachers and principals to business owners, clergy and neighborhood workers. MHF volunteers are also police officers, neighborhood workers, community leaders, NGO employees, elders and indigenous healers. In fact, such healers in Malawi, Africa have learned to apply their first-contact mental health skills to identify, assess, support and refer people in need of acute mental health care through the MHF program. This diversity of trainee backgrounds at the grassroots level increases possibilities for addressing as many gaps as possible in community mental health care. Indeed, grassroots efforts emanate from the ground level (Eaton, 2013; Hinkle, 2010b, 2012a; Hinkle & Schweiger, 2012; Schweiger & Hinkle, 2013).


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