Young people and mental health in sub-Saharan Africa

  • Application end date: 11th February 2018
  • Funding Availability: Funded PhD project (EU/UK/International)
  • Department: School of Education and Continuing Studies
  • PhD Supervisor: Dr Francesca Salvi, Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten and Prof Chris Brown

Project code: ECYS4120218

Project description

The overall aim of this project is to develop an understanding of how mental health affects young people transitioning into adulthood in sub-Saharan Africa. The PhD researcher will work towards a depiction of both structural constraints and individual perceptions of mental health, which could have an impact on young people’s aspirations and on the choices they make. Specifically, the candidate will aim to situate young people’s voices and perceptions within specific social and cultural normative frameworks, in order to ascertain how young people go about their aspirations in the context of mental health. Moreover, it is expected that the PhD will combine an understanding of how traditional approaches to mental health in the Global South intertwine with a global agenda and a more medicalised discourse of mental health.

Although mental health has received considerable attention in the Global North, and especially in relation to young people, the same cannot be said of the Global South (Atilola, 2015). Ongoing social stigma means that in much of Africa mental illness is a hidden issue equated to a silent epidemic. Moreover, lack of research and investment in mental health impacts on the understanding of the issue in the African context and on the available avenues for care and support (Amuyunzu-Nyamongo., 2013). This dearth of research is being reversed, also thanks to the Sustainable Development Goals, which include a focus on mental health for the first time in 2015: Goal 3 is directed to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages (United Nations, 2015).

This proposed project contributes to this developing field by focusing on young people. The representation of this section of the population is higher in sub-Saharan Africa than it is in the Global North (Rocha, Graeff-Martins, Kieling, & Rohde, 2015), making mental health in young people a major challenge to health systems and a key priority for research. The cost of treating mental disorders and lost worker productivity is currently estimated for low- and middle-income nations at $870 billion a year. This is projected to soar to $2.1 trillion by 2030 (Jack, Stein, Newton, & Hofman, 2014).This proposed PhD will help tackle this figure by carrying a tremendous impact potential, as the lack of research has subsequently led to a gap in policy tools (Atilola, 2017). This means not only that there is little we know in relation to how mental health affects the transitions of young people into adulthood, but also that there is little support in place for young people to meet their potential despite adverse health circumstances. Mental illness is still a taboo and stigmatised subject in Africa. This can in part be attributed to lack of education, fear, religious reasoning and general prejudice (Amuyunzu-Nyamongo., 2013; Gordon & Snowden, 2017). For example, when surveyed on their thoughts on the causes of mental illness, over a third of Nigerian respondents (34.3%) cited drug misuse as the main cause, whilst divine wrath and the will of God were seen as the second most prevalent reason (18.8%), followed by witchcraft/spiritual possession (11.7%). Few cited genetics, family relationships or socio-economic status as possible triggers (Arboleda-Florez, 2002).

The supervisory team combines geopolitical expertise stemming from extended study in Mozambique (First Supervisor) with psychological insight on mental health and young people (Second Supervisor) and complemented by a focus on evidence-based policy and practice (Third Supervisor). Thanks to these, this PhD study will carry the potential of developing policy tools, both locally and internationally, for instance by developing a toolkit and generalizable policy options. It is expected that the candidate will clarify in the proposal how they plan to build on this expertise. Although a preference is given to proposals about Mozambique, studies based on a different country will also be considered, provided they are from the same region And have demonstrably similar contextual issues. This PhD relies on qualitative methodology, including participatory and creative methods, interviews and focus groups. These methods fit well within the research strategy identified above and allow for the PhD study to become truly youth-centred (Young & Ansell, 2003) by means of putting young peoples’ voices and perspectives at the centre of the research project. 

Supervisor profiles

Dr Francesca Salvi

Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten

Prof Chris Brown

Admissions criteria

You’ll need a good first degree from an internationally recognised university (depending upon chosen course, minimum second class or equivalent) or a Master’s degree in an appropriate subject. Exceptionally, equivalent professional experience and/or qualifications will be considered. English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0.  


Informal enquiries are encouraged and can be made to Dr Francesca Salvi at (02392 845238) or Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten at (02392 845362).

For administrative and admissions enquiries please contact

How to Apply

You can apply online at  You are required to create an account which gives you the flexibility to save the form, log out and return to it at any time convenient to you.

A link to the online application form and comprehensive guidance notes can be found at

When applying, please quote project code: ECYS4120218

Interview date: TBC

Start date: October 2018.

Funding notes

UK/EU students -  The fully-funded, full-time three-year studentship provides a stipend that is in line with that offered by Research Councils UK of £14,553 per annum.

International students - International students applying for this project are eligible to be considered for the Portsmouth Global PhD scholarships.

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