Curbing mental health in Vietnam – SFU resear

A Simon Fraser University initiative created to support people in self-managing their depression is being reimagined as a virtual tool, to help reduce the community mental health gap in Vietnam.

Funding from Grand Challenges Canada’s Global Mental Health Program and the Vietnamese government totaling $2.8 million will result in the creation of an ‘mHealth’ intervention app for mobile phones, called VMood, and support the development of community mental health services across the country.

The app’s development is being led by SFU health sciences professor John O’Neil, in partnership with Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) and a host of research partners from Canada, Australia and Vietnam.

The self-management tool will link users with mental health resources and be available to people across the country. The team will also assist MOLISA to create a data system for community mental health, and improve training opportunities for social workers and health care workers in community-based interventions for depression and anxiety.

According to researchers, depressive and anxiety disorders among adults and children are common in Vietnam, a country of nearly 100 million people. While primary healthcare is accessible to the general population, healthcare staff often lack sufficient training to recognize and treat common mental health care problems.

“This research program is, for me, the ultimate goal of all good research; to develop an intervention that will improve people’s lives and then work hand in glove with the agencies of government to ensure this intervention is available to everyone in the country,” says O’Neil.

The initiative builds on research that began in 2013 and was led by the late SFU professor Elliot Goldner, formerly director of the Center for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA), who spent a decade researching how to make mental health services more accessible to people who needed them. He created and successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of a self-managed approach in Vancouver – including development of a self-managed workbook – before expanding it globally.

Grand Challenges Canada funded this earlier work as a pilot study in 2013 and later as a randomized control trial, leading to the intervention’s successful testing in several provinces. Results were significant, with nearly 60 per cent of those trialing the intervention experiencing clinically relevant improvement in symptoms.

“We’re proud to have originally funded Simon Fraser University’s Supported Self-Management Model in 2013, which has since been digitized into VMood,” says Grand Challenges Canada Co-CEO Karlee Silver. “Promoting a collaborative approach to mental health management reduces the burden on health care providers and costs to healthcare systems, while empowering individuals to take an active role in managing their mental health. Supporting the transition to scale and sustainability of this mHealth app will significantly improve lives in Vietnam.”

Funding from CIHR in 2017 and later in 2021 allowed the current research team to further assess implementation barriers in the country’s social and health system environments, and to begin to adapt the team’s initial intervention into a mobile phone app in response to the Covid-19 pandemic .

Although the VMood project is being primarily in Vietnam, Leena Chau – a PhD health sciences student on the research team – is hoping to test the feasibility of the app with the Vietnamese immigrant community in British Columbia.

“It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to test VMood in the local Vietnamese community for my doctoral research,” says Chau. “This reverse innovation will enable the transfer of knowledge for application back in Canada.”

“It’s an honor for me to continue Dr. Goldner’s work in Vietnam,” says O’Neil. “I hope we have done his legacy proud with this new funding.”

Grand Challenges Canada is a Canadian not-for-profit organization that invests in local innovations that address critical global health challenges in low-resource countries.


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