Dr Sibongile Mashaphu, the first African female to graduate with a PhD in Psychiatry at UKZN.

UKZN Produces its First African Female Psychiatrist with a PhD

UKZN has produced its first African female Psychiatrist with a PhD. Dr Sibongile Mashaphu’s study tested a behavioral intervention among serodiscordant couples, where one partner is HIV positive and the other is not. The aim was to help the couples to navigate some of the challenges that they face on a daily basis and to reduce transmission of the virus. Given the lack of an HIV vaccine; behavior change is vital.

The study, which was supervised by UKZN’s Professor E Gomo and Professor J Burns of Exeter University, found that the intervention was effective in improving condom use and thus reducing the risk of HIV infection among discordant couples.

Mashaphu said, in her clinical work as an independent specialist psychiatrist, she came across a number of people in serodiscordant relationships that faced multiple challenges.

‘I did my best to assist, but with increasing numbers of such couples seeking psychiatric and psychological services, I realised the need to research the concept of HIV serodiscordance in order to provide appropriate counselling and psychosocial interventions.’

Mashaphu described receiving her doctorate as a humbling experience. She joined UKZN as a Developmental Lecturer in the College of Health Sciences in 2016. These posts aim to develop, nurture and support early career researchers towards achieving academic excellence. She is grateful for being granted the time and necessary resources to focus exclusively on her research over a three-year period.

‘The University runs many different workshops to support postgraduate students. I particularly enjoyed the manuscript writing workshops which helped me to prepare and publish my manuscripts within a short space of time. I was able to meet my goals within the allocated period which would have been harder to do in a normal clinical post,’ Mashaphu said.

She conducted focus group discussions on weekends which involved major sacrifices by both the research team and the participants. At times, couples were not able to attend together, which meant that she had to reschedule a few meetings. This resulted in serious delays. However, she said overall, testing this intervention was an exciting experience which she enjoyed on many levels.

Although this behavioural intervention has been successfully tested in Los Angeles by the University of California, Mashaphu made several adaptations to suit the South African context, including changes to the treatment components.

Words: Lihle Sosibo 

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan