FIG1Jean-Pierre Kamga Olen,
M.D., is a young man with a big mission.
Kamga Olen, 34, has completed years of study in psychiatry and neurology
and has begun work on a personal long-term plan to strengthen psychiatry's
place in his native Cameroon's medical system.
"That is my fight—to encourage young M.D.s to enter
psychiatry," said Kamga Olen in a recent interview at the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he spent a week studying psychiatric
epidemiology and genetics.
There are few psychiatrists in Cameroon, said Kamga Olen. In fact, when he
returns from years of advanced training at Cheikh Anta Diop University in
Dakar, Senegal, he will be just the third active member of the profession
there. Two other psychiatrists are retired, and another has shifted his focus
to national mental health policy, he said. Five other Cameroonian
psychiatrists have gone to France to train and have remained there, a
manifestation of the brain drain that affects so many developing
Jean-Pierre Kamga Olen, M.D.
Credit: Aaron Levin
Kamga Olen is particularly interested in exploring the boundaries between
conventional Western psychiatry and local African cultural patterns. For
instance, during the rainy season in some parts of West Africa, heat and
humidity may make people lethargic, he said. In the dry season, they become
more active. Those climatic variations can make it hard to distinguish
seasonal behavioral changes from bipolar disorder without an understanding of
the setting in which the disorder occurs, he said.
Also, psychotic delusions often take on persecutive, religious, and
mystical overtones in Africa, said Kamga Olen. Mood disorders may present with
somatic symptoms, such as pain, anorexia, or insomnia, rather than the classic
symptoms more common in the West.
He hopes to carry out research in Cameroon that will allow him to adapt
accepted psychiatric measurement scales—such as the Beck, MMSE, or
CIDI—for use with local populations.
That will be no simple task, said psychiatric epidemiologist Judith Bass,
Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health at
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who consulted with Kamga Olen
when he was in Baltimore.
"Symptoms of depression or anxiety may be universal in some ways, but
there are salient local variations and triggers too," Bass told
Psychiatric News. Treatment strategies, whether psychotherapy or
medications, must also be adjusted to local conditions, she said.
Cameroon is a nation of about 19 million people nestled on the coast of
West Africa, just southeast of Nigeria. The country includes 200 ethnic groups
in eight French-speaking provinces and two Anglophone provinces, legacies of
the colonial period that ended in 1960. The country is officially bilingual.
Kamga Olen's mother tongue is Féfé, spoken around his hometown
of Bafang. His second language is French, and he is working hard to improve
his English proficiency. Becoming f luent in English means more than just
adding another line to his resumé. He hopes it also will open the wider
world of research published in English to him and his colleagues.
Kamga Olen's father was a nurse and his mother a schoolteacher and later a
headmistress. His siblings include another physician, a pharmacist, an
engineer, and a professional soccer player.
He completed seven years of medical studies in 2000 at the University of
Yaoundé I, in Cameroon's capital. Kamga Olen chose psychiatry as his
specialty in his sixth year in medical school. He spent four months in the
English-speaking town of Atchatougie, near the Nigerian border.
"The hospital took in 100 patients a day, and the medical officer in
charge gave me a lot of responsibility," he said. "I lived in the
hospital and did everything—general medicine, obstetrics and gynecology,
Among his patients were several with psychosis or cocaine addiction.
"I found it difficult to help them," he said. "The
psychiatric training in medical school was limited, and I felt frustrated that
I knew so little when I encountered these patients."
When agitated patients arrived in the hospital, the other doctors didn't
know what to do with them and simply wrote prescriptions for diazepam. The
only real recourse was sending them to psychiatric facilities in Yaounde or
Douala, both 500 kilometers away.
"So I knew something had to be done," he said. Doing something
would take time, however.
After graduating, he spent a year as an internist and emergency physician
in the university's teaching hospital before taking a post as district medical
officer in the town of Djoum.
In 2002 he requested a grant from the Cameroonian government to train in
Senegal because there was no place in Cameroon to train psychiatrists. After
completing that residency, he received a second grant to study for a Ph.D. in
neurophysiology, concentrating in epilepsy. A former middle-distance runner,
Kamga Olen retains an interest in the psychological side of sports and is
president of the Cameroon Wrestling Association's medical commission.
Kamga Olen is already working to swell the miniscule ranks of psychiatrists
in his home country.
"Alone I can do nothing, so I have been encouraging young medical
students to join me," he said. "Three recent graduates have
already come to Dakar for their psychiatry residencies. I am also trying to
convince the Ministry of Health to organize conferences to attract students to
the field of psychiatry."
(American Psychiatric Publishing Inc. has contributed eight recent books to
serve as the core of a library for these young psychiatrists in training.)
He also completed a master's degree in mental health law while in
His first priority when he returns home at the end of the year will be to
take a post at the Ministry of Health and validate the country's draft mental
health law by comparing it with similar laws in France, the United Kingdom,
and the United States.
"Cameroon needs a mental health law to protect the rights of mental
health patients and define what the state needs to do for them," he