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Novel implementation research designs for scaling up global mental health care: overcoming translational challenges to address the world’s leading cause of disability


Despite established knowledge that Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) bear the majority of the world’s burden of mental disorders, and more than a decade of efficacy research showing that the most common disorders, such as depression and anxiety, can be treated using readily available local personnel in LMICs to apply evidence-based treatments, there remains a massive mental health treatment gap, such that 75 % of those in LMICs never receive care. Here, we discuss the use of a new type of implementation science study design, the effectiveness-implementation hybrids, to speed the translation and scale up of mental health care in LMICs. We use our current study of Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) delivered by local personnel for depression and trauma-related disorders among HIV+ women in Kenya as an example of effectiveness-implementation hybrid design for mental health services research in LMICs.

Twenty years of rising mental disorder burden in LMICs

The 1996 global burden of disease (GBD) report by WHO and the World Bank was the first to put mental disorders on the list of highly disabling conditions. Twenty years later, the global disability attributed to mental disorders has increased by 45 % rendering them the leading cause of years lived with disability. While many low resource populations with unmet mental health care needs exist within high income countries (HICs), according to the GBD studies, the majority of the burden is carried by low and middle income countries (LMICs), where 75 % of those in need of mental health treatment never receive any care. The 2011 world economic forum projected that mental disorders would account for over half of the total economic burden from non-communicable diseases over the next two decades. The most common mental disorders in LMICs are depression and anxiety [including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)] among adults [1], illnesses for which treatments with strong efficacy have been widely used in HICs for decades.

Advances in treatment

Non-specialists can treat common mental disorders in low resource settings

While the scarcity of mental health care providers was initially recognized as a contributor to high burden in LMICs, we now have a decade of studies showing that evidence-based treatments for depression and anxiety disorders, such as brief, structured psychotherapies, are feasible, acceptable and have strong effectiveness when delivered by local non-specialist personnel in LMICs [2]. However, with a few exceptions, most treatment studies in LMICs use traditional effectiveness designs, often foregoing valuable opportunities to deploy implementation science methodology—the goal of which is to identify practice and policy tools and strategies for successfully scaling up evidence-based interventions.

Cost of inaction: the economics of mental health

Unlike diseases for which treatment costs contribute the majority of their economic burden, the costs associated with mental disorders are the costs of inaction. Depression, which is the most common mental disorder among adults, is notorious for its economic impact. Relative to other common diseases in working-age adults, depression has an earlier age of onset (often twenties) and higher chronicity. Depression impacts economic output through its association with work absenteeism (missing work) and decreased productivity (30 % decline with mild depression). However, in HICs, depression and its associated economic losses are more than reversible with improved access to treatment. Studies have shown that investments in depression treatment have net return rates of over 300 % [3].

An urgent need to scale

As global citizens, we have known for two decades that treatable mental disorders inflict disability on a massive number of people, the majority of whom reside in LMICs. We have known for one decade that evidence-based, effective, low cost treatments can be delivered by non-specialist personnel in low resource settings. We have strong data to suggest net positive returns on mental health care for depression, the most common mental disorder. Yet, we have not succeeded in improving widespread access to evidence-based treatment for common mental disorders in LMICs.

Applying new implementation designs to global mental health: stimulating progress

Implementation science addresses the “know-do” gap in healthcare: the disparity between what scientific research identifies as the best evidence-based practices, and what is actually done in the community. Studies suggest that it takes an average of 17 years for 14 % of original research to be integrated into physician practice and that only 54 % of US adults receive care that meets indicators of high quality [4].

Implementation science improves the efficiency and impact of health care by informing the integration of evidence-based practices into clinical and community setting. Specifically, implementation researchers seek to disrupt use of the traditional “pipeline” model in which research progresses sequentially from basic science to treatment development and efficacy aiming to establish internal validity, followed occasionally by effectiveness and implementation studies to evaluate external validity. Implementation science focuses on the processes like financing, provider training and supervision, workflow and evidence-based practice demand through which efficacious interventions can be delivered within real-world settings. Implementation science questions can be integrated within efficacy and effectiveness trials to speed progression from treatment development to wide-spread use.

Effectiveness-implementation hybrid research designs

Blending efficacy, effectiveness and implementation stages of research is a recent strategy to speed knowledge translation and produce evidence with greater relevance to practice and policy. Recently, Curran and colleagues defined effectiveness-implementation hybrid study designs [5]. Type I is recommended for situations in which the primary aim is to determine the effectiveness of an intervention when used with broad eligibility criteria, approximating “real world” use, with a secondary aim to better understand the context for implementation. Type II places equal weight on effectiveness and implementation aims, while Type III prioritizes investigation of the utility of an implementation intervention/strategy with secondary aims to evaluate the clinical outcomes associated with the implementation trial. Here, we provide an example of how effectiveness-implementation designs can be used to advance scale up of mental health care for common disorders in LMICs (Box 1).

An effectiveness-implementation hybrid type I case example: HIV-positive women in Kenya

Box 1 The category fallacy


HIV infection in women is significantly associated with gender based violence (GBV) worldwide [7]. Survivors of GBV are at high risk of mental disorders, with 60–90 % developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or depression [8]. In the setting of HIV, depression and PTSD not only cause suffering and disability, but correlate with deficits in adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART). Our study site is the family aids care education and services (FACES) HIV care and clinical research clinic in the Nyanza region of Kenya, which has the highest national prevalence of HIV (19.3 %) and physical violence against women (57 % of women aged 15–49).

Needs assessment

In 2013, we completed a needs assessment study of HIV+ women affected by GBV (HIV+GBV+) women served by FACES. As reported elsewhere [9], more than half of participants described symptoms of depression, anxiety and traumatic stress among HIV+GBV+ women served by FACES. Participants identified problems with loss, transition and interpersonal conflict (Table 1). The coping skill identified by 82 % of study participants was social support from other HIV+ women. Women preferred to receive mental health treatment at the FACES clinic (versus separate location) and individual counseling was preferred over group treatment or medication.

Table 1 Optimizing IPT for HIV+GBV+ women in Kenya with MDD and PTSD

Treatment selection: interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)

Given that many sources of emotional distress were related to interpersonal loss, transition or conflict, we hypothesized that IPT will be an effective treatment for depression and PTSD among HIV+GBV+ women served by the FACES clinic because it will improve communication and decision making around the identified problem area. Current coping skills, such as social support from other HIV+ women, suggest that IPT will be an acceptable treatment for this population, given that IPT mobilizes social support as a key strategy to enable effective management of the problem area. Our team and others have shown that IPT is feasible, acceptable and has strong efficacy in low resource settings, including delivery by non-specialists in sub-Saharan Africa.

Box 2 Global mental health (GMH) implementation science: next steps

Adaptation, training and manual

Evidence-based treatments are not always designed to be implemented in settings where they are most needed, requiring adaptation for the target population. Given the influence of culture on emotions, adaptation is often a key aspect of global mental health (GMH) treatment research (Box 2). In our adaptation of IPT, we focused on content and process, using data from our needs assessment study with further adaptations during on-site training of prospective IPT therapists (local non-specialists) and pilot IPT cases (Table 1).

Study design

We are now using an effectiveness-implementation hybrid type I study design to deliver IPT integrated within the HIV care platform, in order to move efficiently toward implementation and scale up of mental health care, while monitoring individual clinical outcomes [5]. The hybrid type I design prioritizes evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention (Table 2) with participant level randomization, but allows for data collection on implementation parameters (Table 3).

Table 2 A type I effectiveness-implementation hybrid trial design for global mental health: effectiveness
Table 3 A Type I effectiveness-implementation hybrid trial design for global mental health: implementation

Summary and next steps

Despite evidence that common and treatable mental disorders are the leading global cause of disability and repeated calls for broad-scale implementation of mental health services in LMICs, GMH implementation research remains nascent. New effectiveness-implementation study designs allow for monitoring of clinical outcomes, while advancing research to support mental health care scale up. GMH now has: [1] twenty years of data on the burden (including the economic burden) of mental disorders in LMICs; [2] a rapidly growing body of acceptable, feasible, culturally relevant and effective treatments for depression and anxiety delivered by local non-specialist personnel; [3] access to emerging effectiveness-implementation study designs that can be incorporated into early stage treatment research to guide eventual scaling-up. Now, more than ever, global health funders and global mental health researchers have the incentives and tools to partner with government, academic and opinion leaders and use implementation science to scale up mental health care services for common mental disorders in LMICs.


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Authors’ contributions

All authors contributed to the concept of the manuscript. SMM wrote the first draft. TCN, DAC and HV all contributed to revisions. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


We would like to acknowledge all of the clinical staff at FACES and thank them for their collaboration. We would also like to thank all study personnel involved in both formative and treatment research for the work described.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


This study was supported by NIMH K23 and K23S grants to SMM (K23MH098767; K23MH098767-01A1S1).

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Correspondence to Susan M. Meffert.

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Meffert, S.M., Neylan, T.C., Chambers, D.A. et al. Novel implementation research designs for scaling up global mental health care: overcoming translational challenges to address the world’s leading cause of disability. Int J Ment Health Syst 10, 19 (2016).

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