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Alan J Flisher 2014 Memorial Lecture: Prof Ataly Alem shares Ethiopia’s mental health research progress

Dr-Atalay-Alem Since the passing of Alan Flisher in 2010, the Centre commemorates his life by hosting the Annual Alan Flisher Memorial lecture at Stellenbosch or the University of Cape Town.

Prof Atalay Alem presented the 2014 Alan Flisher Memorial Lecture at Stellenbosch University about mental health research in Ethiopia.

Title: Mental health research in Ethiopia

Abstract: Ethiopia is the second most populous and one of the poorest sub-Saharan countries.  As most low-income countries of Africa the country has relatively high morbidity and mortality rates from communicable and preventable diseases.  Because of this, due attention has not been given for prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases in general, and mental health disorders in particular.  Although there was no demand for mental health research by policy makers and health planners, a handful researcher group that exists in the country has conducted relevant and large scale epidemiological mental health studies in different population groups in the county over the last two decades. Using adapted measurers, epidemiology of mental disorders have been described in urban dwellers, farmers, pastoralists, islanders, childbearing women, children, child labourers and displaced people.   Course and outcome of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder using a unique and predominantly rural cohort has also been descried. Currently intervention trials at primary care level using task sharing model are being conducted in Ethiopia as part of multi center low and middle income country studies.  Contribution of the results of earlier studies in the development of mental health strategy in the country, challenges and opportunities to conduct such studies will be discussed.

Biography: Professor Alem qualified in Medicine in 1983 from Addis Ababa University, Faculty of Medicine. In 1997 he obtained a PhD in mental health epidemiology from Umea University in Sweden. Dr. Alem worked for the Ministry of Health as a psychiatrist for a number of years and as a medical director of Amanuel Mental Hospital for six years before he joined Addis Ababa University in 2000. Currently, he is a consultant psychiatrist at Amanuel Hospital in addition to his academic position at Addis Ababa University.  Since he joined Addis Ababa University, he has spearheaded the establishment of postgraduate program in the Department of Psychiatry which was established in 2003 and successfully created important links between the Department and other international institutions to collaborate in research and other academic activities.

His main focus of research for the last 20 years has been epidemiology of mental disorders in rural, urban, semi-nomadic and isolated islander communities, in children and child laborers. He has been principal and co-investigator of the Butajira Mental Health Project which is the largest community based survey in the world for schizophrenia and bipolar disorders to identify and follow the cases from a rural community.  He has authored and co-authored over 110 scientific papers. He also has been member of various global mental health bodies, and has served as reviewer and member of editorial board of various scientific Journals. Currently he is involved in various multi-centered, primary care focused, intervention studies in mental health.


Previous speakers of the memorial lecture have been:

  • 2013: Prof Martin Prince, Co-Director of the Centre for Global Mental health & Head of Dept of Health Service & Population Research, Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London


Title: Linking the generations – population ageing, older adults’ mental health and development

Prof. Martin Prince is a highly experienced psychiatric epidemiologist with a specific interest in randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in the area of mental health. He has a long-standing interest in and focus upon global mental health. His research encompasses descriptive and aetiologic population-based epidemiological studies, health service research (from a population/public health perspective) and, more recently, interventional research.

  • 2012: Dr Pamela Y. Collins, NIMH Associate Director for Special Populations, Director, Office for Research on Disparities & Global Mental Health and Director, Office of Rural Mental Health Research.


Title: Mental Health Disparities: Solving Problems in a Global Community and the role of research

Dr Collins has conducted research on the mental health aspects of the AIDS epidemic and worked to ensure access to HIV prevention and care for people with severe mental illness as well as access to mental health care services for people with HIV domestically and internationally. Under Dr Collins, NIMH is increasing its focus on disparities in mental health both inside and outside of the United States.

  • 2011: Prof Melvyn Freeman, Chief Director of Non-Communicable Diseases, South African Department of Health


Title: Mental Health and the Big Issues of our time

Prof Freeman has made a major contribution to mental health policy, legislation and service development in South Africa since the advent of democracy. He was centrally involved in the development of the first post-apartheid mental health policy (1997) and drove mental health legislation reform that led to the Mental Health Care Act (2002). He has conducted pioneering research on the links between HIV and mental health in South Africa, and worked as a consultant for the WHO in the field of mental health, human rights and legislation.