Global Mental Health: promoting positive parenting and child mental health in Northern Malawi

Department news | May 31, 2023

Ann Vander Stoep, PhD, Laura Kastner, PhD, and Elizabeth McCauley, PhD, have been partnering with Flemmings Nkhandwe, BSc, MPH and other colleagues in Northern Malawi since 2014 to promote children’s mental health. Mental health problems are major impediments to educational attainment for children and adolescents worldwide. Unfortunately, few parents have access to information about brain development and parenting practices that could help them send their children off to school each day ready to learn.

The child mental health team conducted a survey of principals, teachers, and parent leaders in the Ekwendeni Region of N. Malawi. The survey found that the most highly endorsed cause of child mental health problems was “punitive parenting.” As a response, in 2018 the team developed a 12-hour Positive Parenting workshop in the local Tumbuka language for parents of school aged children. The workshop focused on brain science and parenting skills. Parents learned how harsh and positive parenting effect a child’s brain and ability to concentrate and learn in school. Through skits, role playing, and lively discussions, parents learned three positive parenting skills: one-on-one time, getting to calm, and connect before correct. In 2018, the UW team also collaborated with Seattle’s Ethiopian Community Center to offer the parenting workshop to families whose children participated in after school programming at the Center. Evaluation of the program in both Malawi and Seattle showed that parents used their new skills at home and that their knowledge about the brain and development increased.

Drs. Vander Stoep, Kastner, and McCauley and their N. Malawi colleagues are now working on dissemination. The program falls squarely within the domain of public mental health. They hope to extend and sustain the Positive Parenting project by embedding the program into courses and practicum experiences that students take part in each year as part of the undergraduate public health program at the University of Livingstonia. In their Community Health course university students will learn to conduct a child mental health needs assessment, learn about child development and parenting, learn how to deliver and evaluate the Positive Parenting workshop. Each year the course instructors will select a different village and recruit parents of the local primary school students to take part in a Positive Parenting workshop. The public health students will gain skills that will enable them to continue implementing this program in communities where they will work as public health practitioners. By means of teaching the importance of brain health and training future public health professionals, the team envisions broad dissemination of the program within the N. Malawi region.

The team’s work has been funded by generous local donors, including Dr. Edyth Phillips, a recently retired local psychiatrist who trained and worked at the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.