New Ways to Approach Global Mental Health Challenges

Mental health disorders are currently the leading cause of disability worldwide. Still, access to culturally relevant treatment is complicated by a wide range of social and economic barriers. And with more than 40 percent of the world population under the age of 25, many child and adolescent mental health problems are largely neglected.

Faculty and students at The New School for Social Research are spearheading a major effort to expand both research on global mental health and interventions to help people on the ground.

An Interdisciplinary Cohort

In Fall 2019, NSSR launched the Global Mental Health subject area as a way for Psychology students to explore this specialized area of study while deepening their research, developing closer relationships with faculty, connecting with outside job opportunities, and more. 

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and head of the subject area, notes that courses on the topic have filled up quickly, and that the cohort of students interested in Global Mental Health — like Psychology PhD student Evan Neuwirth — is growing substantially. And it’s not just Psychology students who are involved; increasing numbers of Parsons School of Design students interested in how design can support mental health are enrolling in courses, too.

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and head of the Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab at NSSR

Opportunities in the field are also growing. Students in Brown’s Spring 2020 Global Mental Health course were excited to partner with the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC to help address critical gaps in New York City’s mental healthcare system — a project that was unfortunately disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Brown says, “it speaks to amazing potential community partnerships that exist locally with international implications about ways to work with different organizations and agencies, while building on the creativity and knowledge basis of New School students.

New External Support

One of the classes offered in the Global Mental Health subject area is Child and Adolescent Global Mental Health, taught by Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Attachment Research

 “This is a very innovative program because there are very few global health programs within psychology doing this kind of work,” Steele says. Steele’s work has largely looked at childhood development, bridging psychoanalytic thinking and clinical practice with contemporary research practices.

Her current course explores current trends in child and adolescent mental health services and examines responses to social and cultural traumas, with specific focus on refugee populations and displaced children. NSSR MA and PhD students from across disciplines, as well as Parsons design students, engage in team-based project work, partnering with government agencies and NGOs working to deliver interventions to children in Africa and South Asia. Together, they work to find innovative solutions and prototypes for the global mental health challenges their stakeholders propose. 

The course’s Teaching Assistant, Zishan Jiwani, is a Psychology MA student and a Zolberg-IRC Fellow in Mental Health in Humanitarian Settings who has also studied transdisciplinary design at Parsons. “Zishan and I will really co-teach the class,” Steele says. “Together, we will deliver a blend of psychology, intervention science and design education to guide students in conducting user experience research, prototyping, and testing solutions remotely.”

Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Attachment Research (left), and Zishan Jiwani, Psychology MA student (right)

“An important objective of this class is to support the cultivation of a deep understanding of how mental health and psychosocial support is delivered for children and families in low-income settings in the Global South,” Steele says. “The interdisciplinary design challenge helps students engage meaningfully with the promise and pitfall of mental health interventions.”

The course will benefit from a distinguished list of guest speakers who are at the helm of child and adolescent global health include Aisha Yousafzai from Harvard School of Public Health, Lisa Cogrove from the University of Massachusetts – Boston, Marinus van IJzendoorn from Erasmus University Rotterdam & the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge, UK.

Mentors from partnering organizations will help guide the student teams through the nuances of their specific challenges. Current projects include partnering with Strengthening Families for the Well-being of Children in Nairobi, Kenya to support teen mothers reintegrate into society after giving birth, and working with the Effia Nkwanta Regional Hospital in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana to help parents of special needs children cope with their children’s diagnosis. 

For the Fall 2020 semester, Steele and Jiwani were successful in securing funding from the Association for Psychological Science Teaching Fund, which was then matched by the Two Lilies Fund, a global early childhood mental health initiative. Microgrants will be awarded to all group projects that show courage, creativity, depth and provide a clear rationale for how they plan to use the funding. Teams will also have an opportunity to request a small amount of funding to develop prototypes midway through the semester. 

Steele hopes that publicizing this work will inspire students from across a range of disciplines to engage with these crucial issues at The New School, which is unique in its ability to blend design and psychology in this particular way. The class, which will be offered online in Fall 2020, will also set up a protocol for other universities to develop their own global mental health studies, as well as offer an outline for an engaging and experiential online classroom experience. 

“COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for teaching complex subjects like child and adolescent global mental health through an online format,” Steele said. “However, we plan to use the online format to greatly benefit the classroom experience by expanding our reach outside of New York and bringing in more collaborators virtually.”

From the Lab to the People

In Brown’s Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, faculty and students are investigating disparities in mental health issues as well as developing innovative solutions and interventions that can reduce barriers to care in low and medium-resourced contexts, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

Recently, Brown connected with the World Health Organization about a short-term mental health treatment plan called Problem Management Plus (PM+). The pilot program to train his Lab students in PM+ would have been conducted in partnership with the Danish Red Cross, which has used PM+ primarily in areas facing humanitarian crises. Now, his ab students are learning PM+ remotely so they can help deliver it online to those in need. Read more in this New School News story

Brown is also working with three students — Psychology MA students Camila Figueroa Restrepo and Jamie Gardella, and Milano MA student Maria Francisca Paz y Mino Maya — on a study about intergenerational memories among immigrant communities in New York City.

Together with a local nonprofit, they’re working with families of Ecuadorian heritage to understand how their narratives of migration get passed down through generations, and the extent to which knowledge of that narrative is connected with better mental health outcomes.

And, funded by a grant from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, Brown and his lab students are working with Danny Horesh of Bar Ilan University on an international study examining the psychological implications of the pandemic. Together, they are assessing multiple factors including stress, anxiety, and quality of life, and looking at predictors of distress and well-being. 


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz