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Mount Sinai Psychiatrists Help Tame the Lion of Mental Health in Ethiopia

Two Mount Sinai psychiatrists, Drs. Clare Pain and Paula Ravitz, part of the Canadian contingent involved in The Biaber Project, were awarded a $1 million grant in October to support their work addressing mental health in Ethiopia ― a country where mental illness is highly stigmatized and resources to fight it have been extremely limited. The grant came from Grand Challenges Canada, who announced $19.4 million in funding for 15 projects that aim to tackle mental health issues in the developing world.

The Biaber Project - Scaling up Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) for Common Mental Disorders in Ethiopia, is an initiative of the Toronto Addis Ababa Psychiatry Program (TAAPP). Together with their esteemed Ethiopian colleagues, Drs. Dawit Wondimagegn and Atalay Alem, and Sue Carey, the project manager, the team is training a network of Ethiopian health workers to provide culturally-sensitive mental health treatment to people in their own communities.

A major contributor to mental health disorders in Ethiopia is domestic violence, which has a high occurrence in rural families and can often lead to depression, anxiety and suicide. Those who suffer mental illness are often severely stigmatized and psychiatric care in the country has been extremely limited.

The prevailing model of acquiring medical specialists in Ethiopia in the past has been to send candidates abroad for post-graduate training. However, in the last 40 years, less than two per cent have returned to Ethiopia to practice. The vision of TAAPP is to train professionals in Ethiopia, replicating and sustaining advanced training programs over the long term, thus decreasing the need to train abroad. The Biaber Project follows the same plan to build long-term education capacity and sustainability in mental health. It will also test improved screening for mental health disorders and make treatments available to many who previously could not access care.

“The gap between the number of people in Ethiopia suffering from mental illness and the services and trained personnel available to help is a significant problem,” says Dr. Pain. “This grant will harness the tremendous expertise of Ethiopian psychiatrists to help bridge this gap and will have a significant impact on those suffering with mental health disorders." 

TAAPP has already helped expand and develop Ethiopia’s health-care system from having just 11 psychiatrists nine years ago to 44 today. “More importantly,” says Dr. Ravitz, “This grant will ensure ongoing provision and sustainability of these new services by embedding this training into the professional education of health workers in six regions of Ethiopia.” 

Dr. Molyn Leszcz, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Mount Sinai, is a big supporter of the project. “We are incredibly proud of the work Drs. Pain and Ravitz are doing, and were so pleased to be recognized by Grand Challenges Canada,” says Dr. Leszcz. “Not only do clinicians at our hospital provide exceptional patient care, they also care deeply about global health issues and ― like these doctors ― step up and impact change in a significant way.”

The Biaber Project was named after the Amharic saying, “der biaber anbessa yaser,” which means, “together, a spider web will tie a lion.” With the well-timed help of this generous grant, this extraordinary team aims to tame the lion of mental illness in Ethiopia.

Drs. Clare Pain and Paula Ravitz are both staff psychiatrists at Mount Sinai Hospital and are Associate Professors in the Department of Psychiatry at University of Toronto. Dr. Ravitz is the Morgan Firestone Chair of Psychotherapy at Mount Sinai and the Associate Director of the Division of Psychotherapies, Humanities and Educational Scholarship. Dr. Pain is the Director of Mount Sinai’s Psychological Trauma Program and Co-ordinator of TAAAC (Toronto Addis Ababa Academic Collaboration.) Sue Carey, from International Governance Associates, is the Canadian manager of this project.