UW-Madison Department of Counseling Psychology Christine Kithinji profile

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Department of
Counseling Psychology

School of Education
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Email: counpsych@education.wisc.edu
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STUDENT PROFILE: Christine Kithinji

Counseling Psychology doctoral student seeks to improve women's mental health in her home country

Christine KithinjiThe place: Chucka Town in the Meru South District of Kenya.  
The project: To build the Karamani Clinic. 
The cause: To provide mental health care to women who are HIV positive.

This ambitious and daring undertaking is the goal of Christine Kithinji, who recently completed her Ph.D. work in the Department of Counseling Psychology at the School of Education. Kithinji first decided to pursue her doctorate when she realized that women's mental health care was not made a priority in Kenya.

“Women in Kenya are subjected to marginalization because of the patriarchal nature of the society,” Kithinji said.  “Women’s rights are not always recognized, so I wanted to build this clinic as a place where women can come to learn how to care for themselves and how to advocate for themselves.”

Kithinji first felt inclined to practice counseling while teaching psychology in a teacher’s training college in her native Kenya.  The school lacked any real counselors, and after a while, she realized students were coming to her for advice relating to family and personal concerns, not just academic guidance.  Upon receiving Kithinji’s tutelage, students began to spread the word of her capabilities.

“At that point, I felt I needed more training to be able to help even more people, not just the students at the college,” Kithinji said. 

After receiving a master’s degree in educational psychology at in Kenya, Kithinji felt Wisconsin was the appropriate place to seek her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. Once she arrived in Madison, she decided to tailor her academic focus toward a particular need that wasn’t being addressed in Kenya: supporting and caring for HIV positive women.

Kithinji used to volunteer with people in her native country who were HIV positive when there was no HIV medication available.  Patients would receive pain medication but were not being treated specifically for HIV. 

“People would arrive at the hospital and would just be left at the hospital by their families,” Kithinji said. “This gave me further reason to get training in counseling psych—I wanted to improve the mental health of this population.”

Thus, Kithinji had no real difficulty picking her dissertation focus —“Mental Health Issues of Women Living with HIV/AIDS: a Qualitative Study of HIV-Seropositive Women’s Experiences in Kenya.” 

In 2009, the Division of International Studies Committee for Graduate Student International Field Research Awards was the first to recognize this impressive research proposal.  The committee elected to give Kithinji a $3,000 grant to fund her fieldwork, and from there, her dream to build a women’s health care clinic in Kenya was officially underway.

Not just about the dissertation

Building a clinic in Kenya isn’t the only influential work on Kithinji’s docket.  She is an intern at the Mendota Mental Health Institute doing forensic psychology.  In this role, Kithinji provides psychological care to patients who have been found not guilty at trial for the reason of mental illness or mental defect. Such work is intense and stressful, but she loves the challenge.

“In school, we learn about people with psychological problems like schitsophrenia and bipolar disorder, but we aren’t exposed to the actual patients with these disorders,” she said.  “At the institute, I get to be exposed to all of the disorders and I’m also facilitating a sex offenders group, so the work is quite interesting.”

Kithinji is also in talks with her supervisor about initiating an HIV specific mental health care unit for patients who are HIV positive at the clinic.  Her forensic director has said he is going to support the development of the program. 

However, Kithiniji’s work isn’t just about providing psychological services to the patients - it’s also about protecting the community.  She administers tests to see if patients are lying about their mental illnesses and collects risk on those patients to assess the chances they would try to escape from institute grounds.

“Around six years ago, some of the patients who were hospitalized at the institute escaped and that was a big risk to the community,” she said.  “That is when risk assessments were initiated to be sure it was safe to allow a patient to go from medium security units to minimum security.”

Once tests are completed and risk is collected, Kithinji helps determine whether or not a patient is actually competent enough to stand trial.  If a patient is indeed found to have been mentally ill during the time they committed a crime, then they are brought back to the health institute to go through psychotherapy and rehabilitation.

Building the clinic

When Kithinji was first admitted to the Department of Counseling Psychology to pursue her Ph.D. there was no faculty member doing HIV research, but Dr. Steven Quintana, who initially interviewed Kithinji when she was applying for the program, assured her the entire faculty and staff would fully support her research endeavors.  However, Kithinji still felt she needed to connect with somebody involved in similar HIV research.

Enter Dr. Ajay Sethi, associate professor in UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health, who conducts HIV-related research in Uganda, a neighboring country to Kenya.  Sethi was on Kithinji’s dissertation committee and continually answered any fieldwork questions with which she needed help. This connection to Sethi allowed Kithinji to also obtain a graduate certificate in global health, furthering her qualifications as a Ph.D. candidate. 

But throughout the process of completing her Ph.D., it has never been about qualifications. Rather, the goal has always been to recognize and raise awareness for the mental health issues that are sorely lacking for women infected with HIV in her home country.  From there, building a mental health clinic has always been the dream, and Dr. Sethi spoke highly of this ambition.

“Once Christine conducted her study in Meru, she committed herself to build a mental health clinic,” Dr. Sethi said.  “She understood the transformative effect that a clinic would have in this region for Kenyan women living with HIV.  Christine’s vision, passion and drive are truly remarkable.”

Not only was Sethi helpful throughout her Ph.D. work, but Kithinji always felt her best interests were being supported. When she requested to carry out her practicum at the hospital doing HIV research here in Madison, the Counseling Psychology Department allowed her to do so even though it is not a typical practicum site.

“Dr. Quintana has been very, very helpful—even when I was having some difficulty in the Ph.D. program,” Kithinji said.  “Those times when I felt like I might not be able to make it he was always there to help me and encourage me.  I really have received support from the whole department.”

As a result of that support and Kithinji’s persistent efforts to make building a mental health clinic in Kenya a reality, her dissertation committee came away overly impressed and felt inclined to support her impactful work.  Kithinji was awarded the Marion Cole Award for her social justice work and she received $4,000 to help with the building and operations of her Karamani Clinic. 

Kithinji’s dream has nearly been realized, as construction of the clinic is already underway. Upon completion, there will be 15 rooms in which mental health care and medical care will be given to women infected by the HIV virus.

“It’s amazing the department decided to support my work and give me this award to help pay for building the clinic,” Kithinji said with a wide smile.  “I’m hoping to have patients by the end of next year.  We are going to have a Counseling Psychology roof in Kenya!”

Christine Kithinji received her Ph.D. from the Department of Counseling Psychology in Spring 2013.

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