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HMS-Led Initiative Develops Digital Mental Health Training Platform in U.S. and India

Harvard Medical School initiative EMPOWER was launched in 2019 to address global mental health disparities.
Harvard Medical School initiative EMPOWER was launched in 2019 to address global mental health disparities. By Jonathan G. Yuan
By Ariel H. Kim and Anjeli R. Macaranas, Crimson Staff Writers

EMPOWER, a Harvard Medical School-based initiative’s digital mental health care training platform, bolstered systems of psychosocial care in both the U.S. and India during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The initiative was launched in 2019 to address global mental health disparities. The program is curating an online curriculum to train mental health workers — including front-line and community health workers — in the development and delivery of psychological therapies.

According to Anant Bhan, a principal investigator of the group's operations in India, the initiative trains community health workers there through educational modules, workshops, and videos, in order to expand local access to care for common mental conditions, particularly depression.

“What is more practical is to actually have a lot of frontline health care provision,” Bhan said. “Of course, you will always need psychiatrists and psychologists, perhaps for severe mental disorders, etc., but a lot of common mental disorders should be handled ideally at the community level.”

HMS professor of Global Health Vikram Patel, who heads the group, said in an interview in June that his growing frustrations with “singularly unsuccessful” advances and “impossibly difficult barriers” to mental health care among disadvantaged populations in developing countries motivated him to help develop the initiative.

“The idea behind EMPOWER was to scale up the innovative ways that we know can address these barriers that have also emerged, to a large extent, from the Global South,” Patel said.

The group's virtual training platform uses new technologies, including virtual and augmented reality and natural language processing, to help train health care providers in various evidence-based behavioral treatments.

The Medical School nonprofit also hopes to expand its virtual training and interventions to health systems in countries beyond the U.S. and India, according to John A. Naslund, a management committee member and HMS instructor in Global Health and Social Medicine.

“What's exciting about EMPOWER is that it builds on this foundation of work in India to try to scale this on a global level — not just in one district and one health system in one state in India, but thinking how can we do this in multiple states in India,” Naslund said. “That’s one key aspect of our work, and then also in health systems in the United States and other countries.”

In June, the mental health initiative became a partial recipient of a $10 million Lone Star Prize, a Texas-based competition launched to fund efforts to build healthier communities, enabling the initiative to expand and scale up its operations in Texas.

The initiative’s digital format has been particularly useful in India, allowing work to continue despite the devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic there in May.

Ravindra Agrawal, a principal investigator of the initiative in India, called EMPOWER’s digital work “Covid-proof.”

“If the entire focus was on in-person training, then that would have obviously completely stopped,” he added.

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Anjeli R. Macaranas can be reached at anjeli.macaranas@thecrimson.com.

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Student GroupsStudent LifeHarvard Medical SchoolMental HealthIndia