A keyboard, an Internet connection, and a comfy coffee shop chair is one way to do research. But it's not the way for Dr. Brandon Kohrt, consultant to the Carter Center's Mental Health Liberia Project, who needs a good off-road vehicle and a compassionate ear to gather information about the beliefs, feelings, and experiences Liberians have surrounding mental illnesses.
"It's difficult for me," says Kohrt, "because I'm an anthropologist trying to learn about their beliefs, but I'm also a psychiatrist, so I can see a lot of mental health problems and suffering that goes untreated."
He also sees instances of inspiration in the rural communities and the city centers of Liberia. Kohrt says he met a man who fled Liberia's brutal civil war some two decades ago for a refugee camp outside the country. There, he became engaged in therapy, counseling, and caring for other refugees. Recently, the man returned to Liberia, determined to find ways to improve mental health services. "Even with no training, no medications, and no supports," says Kohrt "he's out there trying to educate people about mental illness, about the care they can get, and about creating hope for families."
Kohrt has administered his own dose of hope as he travels throughout the country talking with villagers, community leaders, and traditional healers. He tells a story of interviewing a woman distressed about her daughter: a new mother with a neglected, malnourished baby. As she described her daughter's behavior, Kohrt realized the young woman was experiencing postpartum psychosis. He explained to the family that the new mother had a mental illness that could be managed with medication and offered advice on how to get treatment.
These kinds of personal encounters have changed Kohrt's life as he experienced first hand the far-reaching devastation of mental illness. "The lives of children are jeopardized by not having therapists and medications available for their parents," he says. "The consequences of untreated mental illness impacts entire families."
These stories and hundreds of others make up Kohrt's research, which is helping The Carter Center and the Liberian government forge a path to educate Liberians about mental illnesses, breaking down myths about these diseases, and combating stigma experienced by people who have them. Dr. Janice Cooper, project lead for the Carter Center's work in Liberia, says his research has been key in supporting family caregivers and creating campaigns to reduce stigma. The overall goal of The Carter Center program is to help the Liberia Ministry of Health and Social Welfare rebuild a mental health system and realize a sustainable mental health workforce. It's an effort that Dr. Brandon Kohrt continues to contribute to as he travels the country, putting a face on mental illness and changing lives one story at a time.