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Alan J Flisher 2014 Memorial Lecture: Prof Ataly Alem…

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.

Policy News

International leaders unite under #FundaMentalSDG to create global movement…

Photo Credit: Mental Health and Poverty Project, University of Cape Town
9 September London/ Geneva —

Mental health leaders and advocates gathered in Geneva, Switzerland this past week as the “Preventing Suicide, A Global Imperative “report was publicly released by the World Health Organization (WHO) after the WHO launched implementation discussions of the Global Mental Health Action Plan adopted by the United Nations 66th assembly last year. Today, leaders join together under a new group #FundaMentalSDG to advocate adding clear, measurable mental health targets to the United Nations Post Millennium 2015 development goals currently in development and about to be negotiated by UN member states, following the UN High-level Stocktaking Event on the Post-2015 Development Agenda in New York on 11 – 12 September 2014.

According to the report by WHO, suicide is preventable, mental health disorders are treatable, and yet because we don’t significantly address it we lose over 800,000 lives annually, it is the second leading cause of death globally for youth ages 15-29, and is estimated to cost the United States alone over 100 billion dollars every year. #FundaMentalSDG invites other organizations, institutions, and world leaders to unite by collectively asking the United Nations to include a specific mental health target and two indicators in this critical post-millennium agenda.

The #FundaMentalSDG group was developed as world leaders agree we must take a collaborative, multi-sectoral approach in elevating the work done in mental health.  Dr. Shekhar Saxena, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance abuse, states in the Global Suicide Report:  “This report, the first WHO publication of its kind, presents a comprehensive overview of suicide, suicide attempts and successful suicide prevention efforts worldwide. We know what works. Now is the time to act”.

The July 19th 2014 United Nations draft of the Post-Millennium Goals includes an overall Health Goal: ‘Proposed goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’.  A recent Editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by Professors Graham Thornicroft and Vikram Patel, of King’s College London and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine respectively, calls upon colleagues worldwide to include within this Health Goal the following specific mental illness target:

‘The provision of mental and physical health and social care services for people with mental disorders, in parity with resources for services addressing physical health.’

They also propose that this is directly supported by 2 indicators related to the WHO Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020, adding that it is very difficult to achieve results without specific measurements:

(1)   ‘To ensure that service coverage for people with severe mental disorders in each country will have increased to at least 20% by 2020 (including a community orientated package of interventions for people with psychosis; bipolar affective disorder; or moderate-severe depression).’

(2)  ‘To increase the amount invested in mental health (as a % of total health budget) by 100% by 2020 in each low and middle income country’

According to Thornicroft and Patel’s article in the BMJ, there is compelling evidence to show that improved global mental health is a necessity for overall human and societal development. For example, “poorer mental health is a precursor to reduced resilience to conflict,” and not only that, “it is also a barrier to achieving the suggested goal for promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all, building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

In a Policy Brief produced by #FundaMentalSDG entitled “Call to Action: The Need to Include Mental Health Target and Indicators in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals”, it reviews the high prevalence of mental illness (1 in four people experience mental illness in their lifetime), the global emergency mental illness is causing insofar as human rights violations, stigma and discrimination, and the fact that mental illness can reduce lifespan by 20 years. Further, the brief points out that in low and middle income countries, up to 98 percent of people with mental health problems do not receive any treatment, as evidenced research proofs. Mental health has impact across the whole range of SDGs, and thus can be seen as a cross cutting issue.

#FundaMentalSDG is an initiative which aims to include a specific mental health target in the post-2015 SDG agenda. The initiative is  committed to the principle that there can be no health without mental health, and no sustainable development without including mental health into the post-2015 SDG agenda. The #FundaMentalSDG initiative is led by the #FundaMentalSDG Steering Group, composed of leaders in the field of global mental health, drawn from a wide range of service user, caregiver, advocacy, policy, service delivery and research organizations.

To support the initiative, visit 

and take action today.

For more information, see and be sure to use hashtag #FundaMentalSDG in communication efforts.

For media enquiries, please contact:

Nicole Votruba

#FundaMentalSDG Co-ordinator