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Monday, January 18, 2021

Academics & Research

UH prof leads team in identifying children at risk for mental health issues


Carla Sharp, director of UH’s Developmental Psychopathology Lab, stands with children at a community-based organization in the township of Mangaung, outside the city of Bloemfontein in South Africa, during her research for a National Institutes of Health-funded study. | Courtesy of

A UH researcher’s team is working on a study about children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in South Africa, aiming to provide insight on how to identify and help children with emotional behavior issues.

About 5.6 million adults living with HIV lived in South Africa in 2011, according to the Department of Health’s 2011 National Antenatal Sentinel HIV & Syphilis Prevalence Survey in South Africa, and 1.43 percent of the general population was estimated to be infected.

According to a 2013 UNICEF report, about 2.5 million children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS were living in South Africa in 2012, making up about 63 percent of all orphans in that region.

“There are two factors that cause increased risk for mental health problems in children (who have one or more parents living with HIV). The first is that their parents die from HIV/AIDS, so the effect on children’s mental health is a well-known fact, and the other result of (having an HIV-positive parent) on a child’s mental health is by having chronically ill parents,” said Carla Sharp, director of UH’s Developmental Psychopathology Lab and the principal investigator of the study, titled “Emotional-behavior disorders in South African children affected by AIDS.”

“There’s been an increase in the ability to treat HIV/AIDS in adults, so the mortality results have actually decreased, but many children are still living with chronically ill parents.”

The study received a $951,147 grant from the National Institutes of Health and aims to develop a reliable and valid diagnostic tool for the early detection of psychiatric disorders as a first step toward successful intervention.

“Our research is about how to identify children in the community with emotional and behavior problems, so we developed and evaluated the validity of two diagnostic tools that could identify children with emotional or behavioral disorders,” Sharp said.

According to a UH press release, the three-year cross-sectional study adapts a clinical diagnostic interview and questionnaire using multiple informants to collect 750 interviews from children ages 7 to 11, including 250 children orphaned by AIDS, 250 orphaned by other means and 250 non-orphaned.

According to Sharp, a large challenge in identifying and caring for children at risk for mental health problems is that there are only four psychologists per 100,000 people in South Africa.

“There is a serious lack of trained professionals to deal with the seriously high amount of children put at risk by this disease,” Sharp said.

“If a child cannot be identified for help, then there is no way for them to overcome the effects of being an orphan.”

The research team also included professor Lochner Marais from the Centre for Development Support at the University of Free State and Donald Skinner, director of Research on Health and Society at the University of Stellenbosch.

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