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Cape Town – Mental illness makes up 13% of the global burden of disease, according to UCT’s Programme for Improving Mental Health (Prime).

To address the fact that four out of every five people with mental illness in low- and middle-income countries went without treatment, Prime had embarked an eight-year programme to develop evidence-based health plans.

Prime chief executive and Professor of Public Mental Health at UCT Crick Lund said it was possible to integrate mental health into primary care in a way that would lead to significant improvements in symptoms and functioning for people living with psychosis, depression, alcohol-use disorder and epilepsy.

“How do you detect someone who is clinically depressed when they have sought care for an apparently unrelated health concern, for instance? With Prime, detection was a core element of the programme, but it might happen in different ways in different countries. 

"In Nepal, for example, they trained community health workers to detect people with mental disorders using a screening tool with case vignettes based on locally produced idioms of distress,” Lund said.

In South Africa, Professors Inge Petersen and Arvin Bhana from the University of KwaZulu-Natal took a model developed in the Kenneth Kaunda district, North West, and took it to other provinces.

Prime has also helped to grow a new cohort of young researchers.

“We expected four to five PhDs from the programme. In the end, we had 20 PhDs. I think we have shown that it is possible to integrate mental health into primary care in a way that leads to significant improvements in symptoms and functioning for people living with psychosis, depression, alcohol- use disorder and epilepsy,” Lund said.