In 2019, I-TECH conducted an on-site assessment at Trinidad and Tobago’s largest HIV treatment site. The findings of that assessment led to the establishment of an integrated psychosocial program at this site that has yielded favorable results. This further inspired the need for expansion of this psychosocial approach to other HIV treatment and care sites.
In 2022, I-TECH collaborated with the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Unit (HACU) of the Ministry of Health (MOH) to conduct a similar rapid assessment throughout the national treatment and care sites. The results reflected that there was a need for specialized staff to identify and treat common mental health and psychosocial concerns, as well as a standardized approach. Therefore, I-TECH is supporting the HACU to lead the expansion and strengthening of mental health and psychosocial (MHPS) service delivery for persons living with HIV at HIV treatment and care sites in Trinidad and Tobago. Goals include the standardization of psychosocial assessments to support the early identification of psychological distress, symptoms of co-morbid mental illness and psychosocial issues; as well as the standardization of the procedures for making interventions.
Developing a draft MHPS Protocol to include screening and intervention tools and psychosocial standard operating procedures (SOPs)
Establishing a standardized referral system
Training and supporting psychosocial team members in the use of the SOPs and all screening and assessment tools. Training will address areas of intimate partner violence, gender-based violence, and mental health challenges that are frequently encountered within the client population
Training and supporting psychosocial team members in data collection and reporting requirements
Training and capacity -building of psychosocial team members of the Psychosocial Coordination Unit being established by the HACU
Lydia Chwastiak MD, MPH is a psychiatrist and internal medicine physician and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Adjunct Professor in Global Health in the University of Washington. Her research for the past 21 years has focused on improving the care and outcomes of people with chronic medical conditions and serious mental disorders. She has been a principal investigator (PI) or co-investigator on eight NIH-funded clinical trials of integrated care in both medical and community mental health settings, including MPI on the multi-center INDEPENDENT Study (R01 MH100390) which demonstrated the effectiveness of collaborative care for the treatment of depression among patients with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes in 4 diabetes centers in India.
At I-TECH, Dr. Chwastiak is also the PI on a large global HRSA-funded grant to support capacity building for sustainable HIV services in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Mozambique, and Ukraine (U91HA06801). The goal of Capacity Building Program is to improve health outcomes for people living with HIV (PLHIV) along the HIV care continuum by building sustainable health systems. The program seeks to improve the efficiency and client-centeredness of HIV care systems by strengthening the operational and adaptive capacities of health institutions and the health workforce; expand the use of evidence-based methodologies and best practice approaches to improve health outcomes for PLHIV; increase the functionality and coverage of innovative technology platforms to improve HIV service delivery, public health communication, and data use for decision making; and strengthen equitable collaborations between country governments, implementing partners and communities to achieve and sustain epidemic control.
In addition to her work with I-TECH, Dr. Chwastiak is Associate Director of the UW Behavioral Research Center in HIV (BIRCH), an NIMH-funded developmental AIDS Research Center and directs the Center’s Integrated Care Research Core. She also is the PI and co-director of the SAMHSA-funded Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (Northwest-MHTTC), which provides training and technical assistance to support the behavioral health workforce of HHS Region 10 (AK, ID, OR and WA) to disseminate and implement evidence-based practices for mental disorders.
Recently, representatives from the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) met with health officials in Trinidad and Tobago to discuss potential areas of support for strengthening the national response to HIV and AIDS in the country.
The meeting attendees discussed strengthening advocacy for people living with HIV (PLHIV); psychosocial support for vulnerable PLHIV; and providing services at the intersection of HIV and AIDS and gender-based violence (GBV).
With support from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), I-TECH has worked in Trinidad and Tobago since 2009, collaborating with the Ministry of Health and other partners to focus on healthcare worker training and technical assistance to improve the quality of care for PLHIV.
“I’ve always been impressed with the team and activities in Trinidad and Tobago,” says Misti McDowell, I-TECH Program Director, “especially the integration of much-needed mental health services into the HIV program.”
The assessment “Strengthening Delivery and Oversight of Mental Health and Psychosocial Services for PLHIV in Trinidad and Tobago” was completed by I-TECH and shared with the National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC), in an effort to identify future areas of collaboration. One of the intended outcomes is the establishment of a technical working group of national stakeholders who will collaborate with I-TECH to craft a strategy for implementing all priority interventions.
“The findings of this assessment revealed that there is a tremendous need for improved mental health support specifically in the areas of assessment and treatment throughout the national HIV treatment and care sites,” says Belinda White, Clinical Psychologist with I-TECH. “One treatment and care site reported that as much as 90% of its client population experiences symptoms of mental illnesses.”
The most common mental illnesses encountered within treatment and care sites include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; substance use disorder is also common within the PLHIV client population. A key area of interest is the integration of the Collaborative Care Model into the already existing treatment and care system, in a manner that incorporates the unique features of each site. The Collaborative Care Model is an evidence-based approach to treating common mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety) in primary care settings and was developed at the University of Washington.
I-TECH also assisted the NACC with the establishment of the National HIV Helpline and will continue to provide support over the next six months, while working to transition the program fully to NACC. This includes support for the HIV Helpline Coordinator and Active Listeners, as well as training of new Active Listeners.
“We must continue fighting the stigma associated with living with HIV,” says Conrad Mitchell, Program Coordinator. “It’s important to continue to battle misinformation and to have that coupled with positive true-life experiences. The Helpline–manned by persons living with HIV together, with HIV NGO advocates and allies–provides a unique opportunity to combat misinformation though empathy and education in direct, one-on-one engagements with the public.”
A 2017 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) National Women’s Health Survey for Trinidad and Tobago showed that more than 30 percent of women in Trinidad and Tobago had reported having experienced at least one incidence of either physical or sexual partner violence. The NACC is seeking support related to GBV and the risks it poses to the health and well-being of PLHIV. Activities would focus on raising awareness and providing resources and psychosocial support for vulnerable groups.
“There is a lack of general knowledge about GBV and what it entails among the public as well as in some health care settings,” says Ms. White. “There is an opportunity to yield enormously positive results by increasing the knowledge and insight of health care workers, and people living with HIV, regarding GBV.
“My hope is that the information that is shared empowers people living with HIV to advocate for themselves if they come to the realization that they are experiencing,” she continues, “and to make contact with the local resources that are available to receive the necessary support.”
The International AIDS Society (IAS) virtually hosted their 23rd International AIDS conference (AIDS 2020: Virtual) on 6-10 July 2020. The AIDS 2020: Virtual theme was resilience, to celebrate and acknowledge the strength of the HIV community and the significant advances in treatment, while also addressing gaps in treatment, prevention, and care.
Representatives from the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) virtually presented the following posters with accompanying audio recordings:
Malango Msukwa, BSc, MPHc, I-TECH Malawi Monitoring, Evaluation, and Data Manager, received a scholarship from IAS to attend AIDS 2020: Virtual and presented a late-breaker e-poster on a study that evaluated the uptake of a new HIV surveillance system and described which populations have continued HIV transmission titled, “Characterizing recent infections among persons with new HIV-1 diagnoses in Malawi.”
In addition to the I-TECH representatives presenting their posters, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Health Alliance International (HAI) also presented data from I-TECH programs in Malawi and Mozambique.
In collaboration with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and The Knowledge Translation Unit, I-TECH worked with the National Department of Health (NDoH) in South Africa to strengthen the integration of mental health services into routine chronic care within the primary health care system.
The Mental Health Integration (MhINT) program improves access to care for common mental disorders and benefits adherence and engagement in care, aligning with the UNAIDS 95-95-95 strategy. I-TECH provided technical assistant to the NDoH and district support partners (DSPs) as the MhINT Program was scaled-up in priority districts identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Global AIDS Program (CDC GAP), South Africa, through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). I-TECH also supported the NDoH as it conducted an in-depth policy situation analysis to inform the development of a national policy incorporating the MhINT program.
Although HIV patients in Ethiopia have greater access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) than they did a decade ago, ensuring that patients adhere to a full course of ART is still a major challenge. In response, in 2008, the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) launched a landmark HIV/AIDS Case Management program in several of the country’s regions where HIV prevalence was high.
This project was supported by the U.S. President’s Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
The goals of the project are to help control the HIV epidemic in Ethiopia, minimize transmission of HIV, and help HIV patients lead healthy lives. The project actively targets and engages patients considered to be likely non-adherents by assessing clinical, nutritional, domestic, and economic indicators. Those at risk of non-adherence are transferred to I-TECH-trained case managers located within ART clinics.
“ART taken for life is a challenge, but missing a few pills can cause a rapid decline in the health of a patient suffering from HIV. A discontinued course of ART will create a resistant strain of HIV that is much more difficult to treat,” says Misti McDowell, former Country Director for I-TECH Ethiopia.
Poor adherence can also mean high risk of transmission in the patient’s community. The Case Management program helps mitigate that risk.
A new screening tool
I-TECH quickly realized that many patients attending adherence counseling sessions were suffering from mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. It was also understood that many health workers did not have the competencies or skills to adequately engage in conversation with patients about their mental and emotional welfare.
I-TECH formulated a mental-health screening tool for all ART patients to better assist patients with ART adherence and mental health issues.
“Many HIV patients in Ethiopia become overwhelmed by depression, and commit suicide. The mental health component to our work has helped to prevent these outcomes, and manage mental health issues related to HIV diagnosis,” says Dr. Manuel Kassaye, I-TECH’s Care and Treatment Programs Director.
Shared experiences can save lives
In Ethiopia, there are currently only 42 working psychiatrists catering to the needs of an estimated population of 93 million. “The country is in need of a strategy to deliver mental health services to people,” says Dr. Manuel. I-TECH-trained adherence case managers, working in partnership with hospital clinicians, have directly helped to address mental health issues related to HIV in Ethiopia.
The majority of case managers selected and trained by I-TECH have themselves been diagnosed with HIV, ensuring empathic relationships with their patients.
“To be a good adherence support worker, I believe it is necessary to have HIV,” says Mulugojam Yilikal, who was trained as a support worker by I-TECH in 2008. “The case worker will have enough experience to empathize with the patient, to help guide them through their mental and emotional issues.”
She adds that patients feel secure and comfortable talking to people who also have HIV. “By opening up and talking freely with us, it benefits their mental health, and their adherence to taking their medication.”
Mulugojam’s brother tragically committed suicide in 2007, after struggling to come to terms with his HIV diagnosis. “I know that if this support and counseling service [had been] available to my brother, he would have been saved from killing himself,” she says. “If a patient confides to a support worker that they want to take their own life, they can be prevented [from doing so] through counseling.”
Genet Behre, 30, is married and has a 5-year-old son. She discovered her HIV status during a pregnancy check-up in 2009. She immediately started taking ART and reluctantly disclosed the news to her husband—who subsequently left her. Once disclosure is made, there usually follows a period of emotional and mental distress that often leads to household dysfunction. “It was a terrible time when I first found out,” says Genet. “I was very distressed, and came into conflict with family and friends.”
After being screened for mental health, Genet was offered counseling and medical treatment for her depression and anxiety. “After six months, I had stopped fighting with my family,” she says. “My life is now stable again, my home life is peaceful, and I have an income selling injera. The counseling and medical support I receive has helped me to live like ordinary people, and not fear for the future.”
After counseling, new hope
A peer support group has been set up by I-TECH, in which patients have a platform to confide in others and speak openly without fear of being judged. Here, people are encouraged to share personal experiences and coping strategies. The group focuses on helping patients cope with the stigma associated with HIV, and overcome any barriers to ART adherence, including social and economic problems.
Zenabe Teklu, 35, silently sits with her I-TECH trained case manager at Gondar Hospital. Although she barely speaks, she is evidently happy to be in the reassuring company of her mentor. Zenabe had two children who both tragically died within six months of being born. After the departure of her husband in 2007, her mental health started to deteriorate. Then, after developing physical sores in 2007, she was tested for HIV, and promptly joined I-TECH’s case support program. However, between 2007 and 2013, she continued to suffer strong symptoms of mental disturbance and suicidal tendencies.
In 2013, I-TECH introduced the mental health screening service at Gondar Hospital. Up to this point, Zenabe was mistakenly told that her depression and suicidal thoughts were symptoms of ART medication. Zenabe started receiving the correct medication and counseling shortly after hospital staff members had completed I-TECH training in mental health screening.
Zenabe, who currently works as a cotton weaver, is happy to have turned a huge corner in her life with the support of I-TECH: “My life is stable compared to how I was before. I no longer feel full of anger and depression. I have experienced a lot of trauma, but the support I get from my case managers helps me to live a normal life”.