Researcher Spotlight: Prof Vikram Patel
Vikram Patel is Professor of International Mental Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and is based at the Public Health Foundation of India and Sangath, India. He has recently begun and five-year Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellowship, which follows a ten-year Senior Research Fellowship in Clinical Science. Prof Patel’s work looks at the impact of mental illness in developing countries, and he hopes to find ways to improve access to treatments in low-resource settings…
What are you working on?
Broadly, on research which seeks to reduce the burden of mental disorders in low resource settings. The specific goals of my fellowship are to develop and evaluate psychological treatments for mental health problems in adolescents which can be delivered by non-specialised health workers in routine health care or educational settings.
What does your average day involve?
I don’t think I have had an ‘average’ day since I began my research career in 1995! Broadly, I spend about 70% of my time on core research activities, from designing protocols to writing papers, but the most enjoyable part is always the actual field work. The rest of my time goes into public and policy engagement, teaching and management roles.
Why is your work important?
Because, quite simply, mental health problems are the most neglected of all global health problems, and most people with these problems, particularly in developing countries, do not receive the care and compassion that we know can transform their lives. Truly, mental health is the orphan child of global health.
What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
That we can achieve parity in all respects, from allocation of resources to access to care to a life with dignity, with other health problems.
How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?
Because I found psychiatry the one medical discipline which offered the perfect, and intellectually stimulating, mix of society and science.
How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?
My work in India has been supported by the Trust continuously since 1995, making the Trust the most consistent funder of my work from the very start of my career. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the Trust was the true pioneer, amongst research funders, in the field of global mental health as much of the early work which laid the foundations of the field was supported by the Trust.
What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?
I used to get asked, is mental health really an important issue for poor countries? No longer, though. Now I get asked, so how will you get the work you have done put into practice? Where is the money and, more importantly, the political will?
Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?
Aha, you are a psychiatrist? Well then, can you read my mind? I still get stupid questions like this, though thankfully very rarely these days!
Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
You might be surprised that my first choice of career was not medicine, but to become a chef.
What keeps you awake at night?
What if my latest hypothesis, which I have spent years testing, turns out wrong! But, more likely, the continuing conflict and injustice across the world is deeply distressing, not least because of its profound effects on mental health.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Make the time to mentor others as I was as this will be the best investment you make in sustaining your research career.
The chain reaction question, from our previous spotlit researcher, Prof Thumbi Ngund’u is this (actually he asked three!): Who is your greatest mentor? Why?
This is an impossible question as there have been many and I must list many. Tony Hope for the compassion to acknowledge that those whom we seek to heal matter the most. Anthony Mann for the joy of letting my mind grow unfettered. Betty Kirkwood for the value of paying attention to detail. Arthur Kleinman for the courage to question the establishment. Srinath Reddy for the ambition to change the world. But, above all, my mother for teaching me humility.
Who is your best collaborator and why?
The Indian NGO Sangath, whose ability to innovate against all odds has been the cornerstone of my work.
What contribution to science or otherwise are you most proud of?
The demonstration that mental health matters in all societies, in particular for those who are disadvantaged in one way or another, and that we have the knowledge and tools to make a difference even in the least resourced settings.
You can find out more about Prof Patel’s work via his profile on the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine website, on mhinnovation.net, and the Centre for Global Mental Health website. You can also watch his TED talk “Mental health for all by involving all“.