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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

Columbia Mailman School of Public Health Marks Global Mental Health Day

Columbia Mailman School’s Global Mental Health Program (GMHP), a collaboration of various schools on the Columbia University Medical Center campus, aims to advance the field of global mental health by building research ties in low and middle-income countries, offering training opportunities, and raising awareness about mental illnesses. Led by Dr. Kathleen Pike with co-directors Drs. Ezra Susser (Epidemiology), Harold Pincus (Psychiatry/Health Policy and Management), Milton Wainberg (Psychiatry), Geoffrey Reed (Psychiatry), and Lena Verdeli, Teachers College; the program has faculty engaged in research and training programs in South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  In addition to research and training initiatives, the program is committed to engaging the arts to reduce stigma and promote understanding about mental illness among communities around the world. The Global Mental Health Program was named a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for research and capacity building in global mental health and serves as the coordinating center for the research program underpinning the development of the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11).

For further information about the GMHP, visit:

Artificial Intelligence Apps to Improve Mental Health

Biostatistician Dr. Ken Cheung is developing advanced models to determine whether a suite of mobile apps can improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. As part of an ongoing National Institute of Mental Health-funded study, Dr. Cheung, interim chair of Biostatistics at the Mailman School, is providing his expertise to test whether these apps work the way they’re intended. The app suite, called IntelliCare, targets common causes of depression and anxiety like sleep problems, social isolation, lack of activity, and obsessive thinking and uses a state-of-the-art method developed through reinforcement learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, to “learn” from the way people interact with the software. Anonymous user data trains the system to find techniques that best encourage individual users to meet their mental health goals. The system also provides recommendations for other apps in the suite that could meet their needs.

Dr. Cheung also developed a toolkit of statistical techniques to dig into the masses of data, with a goal to tease out signature usage patterns and to subsequently associate these patterns with data from the study’s clinical phase. Dr. Cheung anticipates that the IntelliCare system will continue to adapt to encourage users to use the apps in ways that help alleviate their symptoms.

OnTrackChile, a 5-year, $2.9 million project recently funded by National Institute of Mental Health, proposes to implement and evaluate the scale-up of expanded services for people with first episode psychoses in Chile who seek mental health care. The program will be adapted from OnTrackNY, a program widely implemented in New York State which provides both medication and psychosocial interventions to young people who experience a first episode of psychosis. Dr. Ezra Susser is Principal Investigator of the project, along with Lisa Dixon (Columbia and NYSPI), Leo Cabassa  (Washington University) and Ruben Alvarado at O’Higgins University in Chile. This collaboration extends from a prior project known as RedeAmericas, which brought together investigators from Latin America and the United States to conduct research and build capacity to benefit people living with mental disorders in Latin America.

In collaboration with the Department of Mental Health of the Mozambique Ministry of Health, Drs. Myrna Weissman (Diane Goldman Kemper Family Professor of Epidemiology), Milton Wainberg (Columbia Psychiatry), and Maria Oquendo, U Penn Psychiatry), have created a sub-Saharan Africa regional capacity building and research hub funded by NIMH called PRIDE sSA (Partnerships in Research to Implement and Disseminate Sustainable and Scalable Evidence Based Practices in Sub-Saharan Africa). Five countries – Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia – are participating of the capacity building activities and are being trained in mental health implementation science to disseminate evidence-based interventions in the region. A large population-based hybrid effectiveness-implementation scale up study is being conducted in Mozambique to bring comprehensive mental health public health services to 40,000 people who leave in rural areas in three provinces of Mozambique. Dr. Weissman’s interpersonal counseling and group interpersonal psychotherapy will be used by about 400 community health workers to treat common mental disorders as part of the services to be provided.

First Biomarker Evidence of DDT-autism Link

A study of more than 1 million pregnancies in Finland reported that elevated levels of a metabolite (DDE) of the banned insecticide DDT in the blood of pregnant women are linked to increased risk for autism in the offspring. The study, led by Dr. Alan Brown at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Department of Psychiatry in collaboration with the University of Turku and the National Institute of Health and Welfare in Finland, is the first to connect an insecticide with risk for autism using maternal biomarkers of exposure. The investigators found the odds of autism with intellectual disability in offspring were increased by greater than twofold for the mother’s DDE levels in the top quartile. While DDT and PCBs were widely banned in many nations over 30 years ago, including the U.S. and Finland, they persist in the food chain because their breakdown occurs very slowly, as long as several decades, resulting in continuing exposure to populations. These chemicals are transferred across the placenta in concentrations greater than those seen in the mother’s blood. Read the study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.