How DGHI Influenced My Interest in Global Mental Health


Published October 31, 2013, last updated on April 9, 2018 under Voices of DGHI

By Libby MacFarlane, first-year MSc-GH student

In 2007, I vividly remember attending a land rights rally in a township outside of Cape Town protesting urban planning decisions prior to the 2010 World Cup games. Joining hands with the local protesters and hearing their distress about being relocated, I became deeply passionate about the psychosocial impacts of being displaced. The energy at this protest continues to live within me and inspires me today.

A journey to get to where I am today

One could argue that graduating from Wellesley College with a BA degree in Economics and a minor in Environmental Studies is far removed from the topic of mental health. But, I have realized that my interest in Economics stems from a curiosity about peoples’ behavior, psychology and decision-making. After college, I worked as a change management consultant. It was essential for me to understand peoples’ attitudes, emotions, environment and mental state to succeed on the job. Complementing this, I became a certified yoga teacher and explored traditional healing practices in Thailand, Nepal and China. Four months later, I knew it was time to shift my career trajectory. I left my consulting job and took a position with International Honors Program working as a global health trustees fellow.

When I returned to Cape Town in 2012 – this time to lead a study abroad program for undergraduates that compared health systems across four countries -- I realized the lasting impact of the urban planning decisions I had seen five years earlier.   The landscape of Cape Town had changed drastically, as had the psychology of the community. I knew it was time for me to head back to the classroom to understand the academic research and practice that surrounds my interests and to learn from leaders in the field.

Global mental health at the Duke Global Health Institute

Now as a Master of Science in Global Health student at Duke, one of the things I love most is the program’s focus on collaborative and interdisciplinary learning. The Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) is an outstanding example of bringing a diverse set of experts in the field together to work on substantive global health issues, while also having a richness and depth to each area of expertise. From experts in climate change to infectious disease to health economics – the institute has it all.

Setting it apart from other health programs, Duke is home to numerous global mental health practitioners and researchers; many of whom make up the Duke Global Mental Health Working Group.  With mental health research projects in 16+ countries, I knew I would be faced with the challenge of narrowing my fieldwork options (a good problem to have).

How DGHI has influenced my interest in mental health

There are many ways for me to be engaged in global health at Duke, from courses and research to lectures and special events. Collectively, these opportunities have deepened my understanding and appreciation of global mental health work. In addition to enrolling in the Global Mental Health course and attending events like World Mental Health Day earlier this month, I can tailor my work and activities to fit my interests.

I am a research assistant with Duke global mental health expert Dr. Brandon Kohrt, a well-respected psychiatrist and medical anthropologist who focuses on populations affected by war-related trauma in Nepal, Liberia and Uganda.   Working with him, I have been exposed to the complexities of cross-cultural classification, ethics and stigma related to mental health. With his mentorship, my thesis research will explore the psychosocial impacts of climate change in Nepal.

The Bass Connections program is another outstanding example of interdisciplinary work here at Duke. I am a member of a Bass Connections team focusing on “Displacement, Resettlement and Global Mental Health”. This team is vertically- integrated, consisting of undergraduates, graduates, post-docs and faculty, and we concentrate on the psychosocial effects of resettlement on Bhutanese, Iraqis and Syrian refugees in Durham and abroad.  As a global health student conditioned to focus on the big picture, I really enjoy having the opportunity to be so connected with the local community…. which in turn, helps inform the big picture.

The breadth and combination of distinguished faculty, coursework, events and research opportunities at Duke have provided a framework to see where my specific interests fit within the global mental health field and where I can make the most impact.  As I begin to apply my learning in the field, I look forward to see how my interests evolve and the new insights I will have as a result!