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"we need more big trees as well as the grass roots": Going beyond research capacity building to develop sustainable careers in mental health research in African countries

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Lisa F. Langhaug, Helen Jack, Charlotte Hanlon, Stefan Holzer, Katherine Sorsdahl, Barbara Mutedzi, Walter Mangezi, Christopher Merritt, Atalay Alem, Robert Stewart, Chiwoza Bandawe, Rosemary Musesengwa, Melanie Abas, Dixon Chibanda, Crick Lund

Original languageEnglish
Article number66
JournalInternational Journal of Mental Health Systems
Issue number1
Published14 Aug 2020

King's Authors


Background: There are substantial gaps in our knowledge regarding the aetiology of mental, neurological and substance use disorders in sub-Saharan Africa, and the cost-effectiveness and scalability of interventions to reduce the burden of these conditions on the continent. To address these gaps, international investment has focussed on building research capacity, including funding doctoral students in African countries, to support development of high quality, contextually relevant interventions. Absent, however, is an understanding of how capacity building feeds into research careers. Methods: Within a broader mental health research capacity-building initiative (African Mental Health Research Initiative), we conducted 52 qualitative interviews with early-career researchers, policymakers, academics, and service users from four African countries (Ethiopia, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe) and with international funders of mental health research. The interview guide focused on the research context, planning, and priorities and how respondents perceive research careers and funding. Thematic analysis was applied to the transcribed interviews. Results: Five components of a research career emerged: (i) research positions; (ii) research skills; (iii) funding; (iv) research commitment from African countries; and (v) advocacy. All stakeholders wanted more high-impact African researchers, but few saw a clear, replicable track for developing their careers within universities or their Ministries of Health in their African countries. This stemmed, in part, from the lack of support for infrastructure that enables high-quality research: Grants administration, mentorship, university leadership, research culture, and open communication between policymakers and researchers. Conclusions: This study highlights the importance of developing research infrastructure alongside capacity-building efforts. International funders should invest in grant management at African universities which would place them at the centre of research initiatives. African universities should prioritise the creation of a research culture by developing and promoting well-defined research tracks for both clinicians and academics, investing in grant management, and raising the profile of research within their institutions.

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