In developing countries, almost everybody has a cell phone, and sometimes two or three to take maximum advantage of network coverage across different carriers. Not all phones are operational all the time; the predominant use of prepaid plans means that sometimes people let their minutes run out until they can afford to reload the phone. But where personal computers are still an anomaly, mobile handsets have become ubiquitous, and for good reason: they’re less expensive than other (computing) devices, increasingly “smart” and multifunctional, and both durable and portable for long and dusty trips from village to city and back again.
For these reasons, problem solvers in the Global South turned to mobile technology before it had even caught fire in the North. In the banking industry, mobile payment operations started as far back as 2000, for example. Soon, ideas for mobile solutions for agriculture and education and health care were all popping up, and I’m pleased to see that this is now extending into the mental health arena.
Some of this momentum is being driven by dollars from the Government of Canada. Through an agency called Grand Challenges Canada, it was announced last week that more than seven million dollars has been allocated for 22 global mental health projects worldwide. These projects are delivered by local in-country agencies and institutions (a very important aspect, in my opinion).
Of the initiatives that were chosen for a grant, 13 of them include deployments of mobile phone technologies. Uses will include things such as screening and referral tools, and training and support for lay health workers (defined as those who carry out functions related to healthcare delivery, but have no formal professional or paraprofessional certificate or tertiary education degree).
The practical reality of mental health care delivery in the developing world is that the majority of services will come through lay health workers. As Grand Challenge’s press release states, there are fewer than 30 psychiatrists for 10 million people in Haiti, and data from other countries would reflect similar ratios. Ramping up the number of professionals in specialty areas takes too long, so community health care workers are the most available and direct way to create a greater availability of services. With mobile technology, these generalists will have more specialized resources at their fingertips, via a device that they probably already own.
The entire list of projects and related links and contacts is available on this Global Mental Health Media Information Sheet. It’s an interesting mix, and the geographic diversity is sure to lead to some unique challenges and results. I plan to follow up on some of them in the future.
Have you run across a mobile application that is designed specifically for mental health? Do you have field experience delivering mental health services in the Global South? All thoughts and feedback is appreciated!
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Haiti photo: Wiki Commons by Marcello Casal Jr, ABr