A YORK university is leading the way in improving mental health facilities in one of the world’s poorest countries.

The University of York is heading a vital international project to establish community-based mental health care in Malawi.

Thanks to funding awarded under the UK Government’s Health Partnership Scheme, village-based health workers in 20 health centres in the Zomba District in southern Malawi, as well as other primary care staff, will receive mental health care training.

The project, which has the support of the Malawi government, aims to establish a community-based programme of care by enhancing the role of village-based health workers – Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs).

Under the Zomba project, which runs until March 2015, HSAs will receive training in providing treatment and support for people in their communities experiencing epilepsy, severe depression and suicide, psychosis and learning disabilities.

Led by Jerome Wright, of the university’s department of health sciences, the project builds on a smaller pilot study. This looked at how Malawi’s plan to de-centralise its limited mental health services and integrate it within primary care can be enhanced by moving mental health interventions into the roles of HSAs.

He said: “In Malawi, mental health need outstrips services and represents an immense treatment gap which urgently needs addressing.

“Our project looks at whether equipping Health Surveillance Assistants with new skills can improve community care by increasing the recognition of and response to people experiencing mental health problems.

“Our earlier pilot project showed that HSAs are ideally placed and willing to respond to mental health needs at community level, provided that the appropriate training is given, as well as on-going supervisory support and organisational backing.

“Thanks to the new funding, we are now able to test this initiative at a district-wide level and train 450 HSAs and 240 other health care professionals in mental health care.”

Zomba serves a population of 550,000 and the results of the project will also be of interest to international mental health providers in other developing countries faced with the same challenges.