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Grant to help train researchers on mental health disparities in U.S., abroad

NIH award for School of Medicine and Brown School aimed at global training for young scientists

by Jim DrydenOctober 18, 2019

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Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have been awarded a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to train young scientists to recognize, investigate and work toward correcting disparities in access to mental health care in the United States and sub-Saharan Africa.

Although the global burden of mental illness is enormous, health-care professionals devoted to mental health account for a very small percentage of the global health workforce. About 45% of the world’s population live in countries with less than one psychiatrist per 100,000 people. Consequently, many people suffering from depression, substance use disorders and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia don’t get the help they need.

Led by Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine, and Fred M. Ssewamala, PhD, the William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor at the university’s Brown School, the training program will recruit predoctoral and postdoctoral students from around the U.S., with a particular focus on trainees from groups that are underrepresented in biomedical, behavioral and social sciences research.

“We are seeking scientists at the stage of their careers where they are getting ready to solidify their research interests,” said Cavazos-Rehg. “We want to pique their interest in health disparities research and especially in global mental health disparities, where there are such great needs. Our hope is that they will consider focusing on those important issues as their careers progress.”

The intensive 12-week training program will be held in the summer, beginning with four weeks of coursework at Washington University, along with field research in the St. Louis area. The students then will travel to sites in eight sub-Saharan African countries to conduct more field work and research into health disparities, with a particular focus on mental health.

“We are excited about this new opportunity,” said Ssewamala. “Communities across St. Louis and sub-Saharan Africa struggle to access quality mental health services, and this program has great potential for bidirectional learning. Our trainees will be committed to research in low-resource settings and, in working at their research sites, will learn from their mentors in Africa while applying the skills learned during their coursework in St. Louis.”

After the training next summer, one postdoctoral student will be chosen for a nine-month fellowship at Washington University. The training program is funded by a $1.3 million grant from the NIH. The program is accepting applications through 5 p.m. Dec. 1.

For more information, contact the program’s training coordinator, Suzie Fragale at

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,500 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Jim retired from Washington University in 2023. While at WashU, Jim covered psychiatry and neuroscience, pain and opioid research, orthopedics, diabetes, obesity, nutrition and aging. He formerly worked at KWMU (now St. Louis Public Radio) as a reporter and anchor, and his stories from the Midwest also were broadcast on NPR. Jim hosted the School of Medicine's Show Me the Science podcast, which highlights the outstanding research, education and clinical care underway at the School of Medicine. He has a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.