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Developing mental health research in sub-Saharan Africa: capacity building in the AFFIRM project

  • M. Schneider (a1), K. Sorsdahl (a1), R. Mayston (a2), J. Ahrens (a3), D. Chibanda (a4), A. Fekadu (a5), C. Hanlon (a2) (a5), S. Holzer (a3), S. Musisi (a6), A. Ofori-Atta (a7), G. Thornicroft (a2), M. Prince (a2), A. Alem (a5), E. Susser (a8) and C. Lund (a1)...



There remains a large disparity in the quantity, quality and impact of mental health research carried out in sub-Saharan Africa, relative to both the burden and the amount of research carried out in other regions. We lack evidence on the capacity-building activities that are effective in achieving desired aims and appropriate methodologies for evaluating success.


AFFIRM was an NIMH-funded hub project including a capacity-building program with three components open to participants across six countries: (a) fellowships for an M.Phil. program; (b) funding for Ph.D. students conducting research nested within AFFIRM trials; (c) short courses in specialist research skills. We present findings on progression and outputs from the M.Phil. and Ph.D. programs, self-perceived impact of short courses, qualitative data on student experience, and reflections on experiences and lessons learnt from AFFIRM consortium members.


AFFIRM delivered funded research training opportunities to 25 mental health professionals, 90 researchers and five Ph.D. students across 6 countries over a period of 5 years. A number of challenges were identified and suggestions for improving the capacity-building activities explored.


Having protected time for research is a barrier to carrying out research activities for busy clinicians. Funders could support sustainability of capacity-building initiatives through funds for travel and study leave. Adoption of a train-the-trainers model for specialist skills training and strategies for improving the rigor of evaluation of capacity-building activities should be considered.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: M. Schneider, Alan J Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health, Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, University of Cape Town, 46 Sawkins Road, Rondebosch, Cape Town, South Africa. (Email:


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