UF receives $1.1 million to support behavioral health training, research partnerships in India

By Jill Pease

The University of Florida has received $1.1 million to offer behavioral health training to colleagues in three Indian cities and increase research opportunities between the university and Indian partners.

Linda Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., (center) leads a new project that will provide fellowships for Indian behavioral health professionals like Sonam Ongmu Lasopa, M.Phil., (left) and Nikhil Jain, M.D., both based in Gangtok, Sikkim in India. Photo by Maria Belen Farias.

“Our goal is to reduce the training gap and increase research in perpetration and exposure to violence, addiction to prescribed and illicit drugs, and the most impairing mental symptoms — psychosis, suicidal thoughts and dementia,” said the grant’s lead investigator Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor and chair of the department of epidemiology in UF’s colleges of Public Health and Health Professions and Medicine.

The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center, which supports global projects that address non-communicable diseases across the lifespan.

In a separate Fogarty grant-funded project led by Cottler that concludes this year, the team partnered with Indian colleagues to develop research and training infrastructure with a broad psychiatric focus at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, India’s leading center for education and research in psychiatric and neurological disease. Sanjeev Jain, D.P.M., M.D., is head of the institute’s department of psychiatry in Bangalore, Karnataka, and serves as UF’s primary foreign collaborator.

“Psychiatric disorders in children, adults and the elderly arise from a combination of biological and psycho-social and environmental factors, which may differ across the world,” Jain said. “These factors may also influence access to care and outcomes. Multidisciplinary and in-depth research will be essential to understand these influences, and this collaboration will focus its efforts on training researchers to address these issues.”

The new project will concentrate on the behavioral health issues of greatest concern in India, Cottler said, and in addition to Bangalore, includes partnerships in two east Indian cities: Gangtok, Sikkim in the Himalayas and Tezpur, Assam in the Himalayan foothills.

A major aim of the project is to address India’s demand for behavioral health care providers through on-site workshops for health workers in the Indian partner cities, and 12 fellowships for Indian professionals who will train in the United States for several months to a year in epidemiology, community-engaged research and public health policy.

“We want to strengthen the human capital so when we train fellows they will go back to India and train other people and it will be like a pyramid effect,” Cottler said.

Indian mental health clinics may see hundreds of patients a day, some who have traveled several hours, said Nikhil Jain, M.D., a psychiatrist based in Sikkim and a Fogarty grant trainee currently working at UF.

“The other thing we are lacking in Sikkim is epidemiological research,” he said. “We have absolutely no data on any epidemiology, not just on mental health, but also other diseases. So to start off we need some data to build on our public health structure. That is one very important issue that I am looking forward to learning here during my three-and-a-half months.”

Suicide and substance abuse are two mental health issues of growing concern for the Sikkim population, but the causes are not well-understood, said Sonam Ongmu Lasopa, M.Phil., a Sikkim mental health professional and Fogarty fellow who plans to earn a Ph.D. at UF in epidemiology. The research and training collaborations with UF may help mental health providers in Sikkim develop treatment and prevention programs based on empirical data, she said.

“The population that we will work with is a population where no health research has ever been done before,” she said. “It will be an eye-opener for a lot of us because we have some assumptions that may turn out to be wrong.”

The project will also offer several benefits for UF researchers and students, Cottler said.

“The past workshops we have conducted in India have been significant learning experiences for all, whether students, residents, fellows or professors,” Cottler said. “Each team demonstrates new methodologies; cultural issues are always discussed and focused on as well. The workshops and small discussions will spark ideas for new efforts that could be done collaboratively between the University of Florida, India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, and our new Indian partners. This is a way to get investigators from all over the university involved in research in India working on common themes. We are excited about this new opportunity.”

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