Academic Programs / Community

Bringing Mental Health Support to Floating Doctors Patients in Panama

Adler University Couple and Family Therapy Students

From left to right: Dr. Brown, and students Carol Salas, Catherine Schumacher, Travianna Jones, Briana Moretti, Alejandra Franco, Marcela Ramirez, and Paris Thomas. They will all be traveling to Panama in August.

Several years ago, Kristina Brown, Ph.D., LMFT, Chair of the Couple and Family Therapy Department in Chicago, began to discuss possible collaborations with the Founder and CEO of Floating Doctors, Dr. Ben LaBrot.  Dr. Brown, whose clinical specialties and research interests lie in medical family therapy, and Dr. LaBrot share a passion for bringing mental health support to the people served by Floating Doctors.

Floating Doctors is located in Bocas del Toro, Panama and operates from a central base to provide medical services to over 25 local communities of the Ngäbe-Bulgé people. What started as an actual boat sailing to provide medical care to those in need in places like Haiti and Honduras, settled in Panama with a permanent base to provide rural health care and community development. Missing from their services was attention to the mental health issues that are prevalent, especially presented with the medical conditions that Floating Doctors was seeing in their patients.

Drs. Brown and LaBrot set their shared vision to help fill this void in motion in January 2019 when Couple and Family Therapy Ph.D. student, Megan Chapman, began a year-long doctoral internship with the goal of program development and research. Serving as the financial controller and “resident therapist,” Chapman is taking the lead on a current research project, “Assessing Mental Health Needs in the Indigenous Ngäbe-Bulgé Comarca in Bocas del Toro, Panama,” along with fellow volunteer, Jill Patel, and Dr. Brown, Medical Director Dr. Chris Cunningham, and Dr. LaBrot.

This qualitative study utilizes a community-centered, multidisciplinary approach, using knowledge from areas of Couple and Family Therapy, Medical Family Therapy, medicine, and global health to explore the interrelationship between culture and complete healthcare needs including mental health. It will also highlight the educational, socioeconomic, and health problems that both cause and result from a lack of mental health resources. This data can help Floating Doctors create mental health programs that support the cultural values and address the specific life stressors of the Ngäbe-Bulgé community as determined from their own stories.

Additionally, this study will aid the Panamanian government in understanding the mental health needs and resources of the Ngäbe-Bulgé community. The partnership between the Couple and Family Therapy Department of Adler University and Floating Doctors will result in the opportunity to provide mental health services as determined by the outcomes of this study. The goal is to develop the ongoing provision of mental health services through Floating Doctors and make this available for volunteer mental health providers across the world.

In August 2019, Dr. Brown will be going to Panama with seven masters and doctoral students from the Couple and Family Therapy Department to work alongside Megan piloting interim projects. The class will be on base in Isla San Cristobal for two weeks deploying with the Floating Doctors medical team to remove village clinics, volunteering at a nursing home, and learning about the history, culture, ecology and health challenges of the area. According to their website, Floating Doctors’ goal for the students is that the experience “will be transformative.” “This experience will not only encourage global thinking, international cultural and travel competence and a deeper understanding and appreciation of other cultures and environments, but also reinforces the value of service not only for others but for ourselves.”

This opportunity fulfills a professional dream for Dr. Brown, a doctoral internship requirement for Ph.D. student, Megan Chapman, and meets elective requirements in the Masters and Ph.D. programs for students. It also aligns with the Couple and Family Therapy Department’s definition of diversity and deep commitment to individual and family health. The program’s foundational belief is that “all people are worthy of our understanding and respect. We believe that diversity education is a personal and relational process; therefore, we value self of the therapist exploration and experiential learning.”