Brian Hall Addresses Global Mental Health Challenges amid the Pandemic

Chinese & English Text │ Kelvin U
Photo │ Editorial Board with some provided by the interviewee

The COVID-19 pandemic is raging across the world. Prof Brian Hall, director of the Global and Community Mental Health Research Group of the University of Macau (UM) and associate professor in the Department of Psychology, worked with a nine-member professional psychological counselling team to provide mental health support for those affected. Prof Hall, who addresses physical and mental health challenges through research, strives to broaden the global horizons of his students by connecting them to their community through his studies.

E‑mental Health Intervention

During the pandemic, Prof Hall worked with a team comprised of three professors of psychiatry and clinical psychology, as well as six professional psychotherapists and counsellors from the university’s Psychological Counselling Centre. Collaborating with the Social Welfare Bureau of the Macao SAR government, the team provided psychological counselling to those being quarantined, via telephone, online messages, as well as other audio and video technology, to help them cope with emotional stress. In addition, the team provided mental health support and held information sessions for those working on the frontlines.

Prof Brian Hall

Prof Hall conducts research in global and community mental health and leads his research group to work with the World Health Organization (WHO) on projects that aim to improve people’s physical and mental health. Prof Hall also examines health in equalities among ethnic minority and migrant groups. He observes that migrant workers worldwide are more vulnerable to health and safety risks during the coronavirus disease outbreak, as they encounter more barriers to accessing health services in host countries (eg, inadequate health insurance). Prof Hall co‑authored two research papers on this topic, which were published in February by the Lancet, a leading global medical journal1.

Prof Hall has culturally adapted the World Health Organization’s digital mental health intervention programme called ‘Step‑by‑Step’, which can be delivered using a smartphone. The programme seeks to improve mental health outcomes in areas where face‑to‑face mental health services may be difficult to access. In his opinion, community mental health services in Macao and other cities in the Greater Bay Area are in short supply, and the number of clinical psychologists and other mental health specialists has always been insufficient to meet the demand, which poses a serious risk to public health.

Prof Brian Hall’s students win best student poster awards for their senior honours thesis poster presentations at the 2018 Convention of the American Psychological Association

‘If you look at China as a whole, there are 1.4 billion people in the country and there is a great demand for mental health services. So digital mental health interventions is a solution to that challenge,’ says Prof Hall. Currently, the team is conducting rigorous randomised controlled trials of the WHO digital mental health programme Step‑by‑Step among Chinese students, Chinese adults and Filipino migrant workers inMacao, evaluating the effectiveness of the programme to meet the mental health needs of a diverse society.

Connecting Students to Their Community

Prof Hall covers a wide spectrum of topics in his research, including mental health needs in times of crises. For instance, within one month of the end of Typhoon Hato (2017), his research group developed a questionnaire and launched a study that examined the mental health consequences and help‑seeking behaviours of Chinese students. Prof Hall conducted the study in Macao, in collaboration with his students from Macao, and the Student Affairs Office (SAO) of UM. ‘We enrolled almost 2,000 students at UM, which is a large sample, representing 20 per cent of the entire student population,’ he says. The project linked students to needed counselling services provided by the SAO. Key research questions were related to the prevalence of common mental health issues following the typhoon exposure, and preferences and barriers to mental health treatment among students. Related papers were published by the European Journal of Psycho traumatology, one of the most influential journals in the field of traumatic stress studies 2.

The Global and Community Mental Health Research Group of UM collaborates with the Fuhong Society of Macau on a study on the caregiving burden and mental health condition of Chinese caregivers of people with intellectual and mental disabilities in Macao

The core mission of the research group is to conduct research to inform interventions and policies that can address key problems in public health. Prof Hall believes that each significant piece of information signifies an actual person and it is important to understand the people behind the data. The research group has partnered with the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Macao and Caritas Macau to study the potential risks for HIV and syphilis. Prof Hall and his students have provided quick diagnostic tests on HIV and syphilis in the community and conducted a study using a representative sample of nearly 2,000migrant Filipino and Indonesian women in Macao3.

This was the largest study of its kind, and yielded information about the sexual, physical, and mental health of the population. Prof Hall and his students have also collaborated with the Fuhong Society of Macau on a study on the caregiving burden and mental health condition of Chinese caregivers of people with intellectual and mental disabilities in Macao.

It was the first time that Prof Hall and his students provided such diagnostic tests in research in Macao, so they were trained by public health nurses prior to launching the outreach intervention services. On the day of the interview, there were many test suites piled up at the entrance of his office. ‘For me, there is no ivory tower,’ says Prof Hall. ‘UM is a place where people should work together on projects that are consequential for Macao and the Greater Bay Area.’

ISSUE 22 | 2020

Also in this issue

Prof Brian Hall has published over 200 articles and book chapters in SSCI‑indexed journals. He is an inaugural fellow in global mental health of the World Health Organization, and a former international fellow at the Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. He was elected a fellow of the American Psychological Association in 2019, and is the only fellow from Macao. Prof Hall has received the Excellence in Advising Award from the Centre for Global Health of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Most recently, Prof Hall joined the WHO Western Pacific Region informal expert group on community engagement in COVID‑19.

1. Liem, A., Wang, C., Wariyanti, Y., Laktin, C., & Hall, B. J. (2020). The neglected health of international migrant workers in the COVID‑19 epidemic. Lancet Psychiatry, 7, 4:e20. Bodomo, A., Liem, A., Lin, L., Hall, B. J. (2020). How African migrants in China cope with barriers to health care. Lancet Public Health, 5,4:PE192.

2. Shi, W. & Hall, B. J. (in press). Help‑Seeking Preferences among Chinese College Students Exposed to a Natural Disaster:
A Person‑Centered Approach. European Journal of Psychotraumatology

Hall, B. J., Xiong, Y., Yip, P. S. Y., Lao, C., Shi, W., Sou, E. K. L., Chang, K., Wang, L., & Lam, A.I.F (2019). The association between disaster exposure and media use on posttraumatic stress disorder following Typhoon Hato in Macao, China. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 10:1, 1558709.

3. Hall, B. J., Yang, X., Huang, L., Yi, Grace, Chan, E. W. W., Tucker, J. D., & Latkin, C. (2020). Barriers and facilitators of rapid HIV and syphilis testing uptake among Filipino transnational migrants in China. AIDS and Behavior, 24, 418‑427.