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Improving mental ill-health with psycho-social group interventions in South Asia–A scoping review using a realist lens

  • Kaaren Mathias ,

    Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliations Herbertpur Christian Hospital, Emmanuel Hospital Association, Uttarakhand, India, Faculty of Health, Te Kaupeka Oranga, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

  • Sumeet Jain,

    Roles Formal analysis, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

  • Robert Fraser,

    Roles Formal analysis, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Mental Health Social Worker, Exeter, United Kingdom

  • Meghan Davis,

    Roles Data curation, Formal analysis

    Affiliation Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom

  • Rita Kimijima–Dennemeyer,

    Roles Formal analysis, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Independent Researcher, Leuven, Belgium

  • Pooja Pillai,

    Roles Formal analysis, Validation, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Herbertpur Christian Hospital, Emmanuel Hospital Association, Uttarakhand, India

  • Smita N. Deshpande,

    Roles Formal analysis, Supervision, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Department of Psychiatry, St John’s National Academy of Medical Sciences, Bengaluru, India

  • Maria Wolters

    Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Funding acquisition, Resources, Software, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom


This scoping review aimed to synthesise current evidence related to psycho-social groups as part of community-based mental health interventions in South Asia. We used a realist lens to pay attention to the contexts and mechanisms supporting positive outcomes. We included studies published from January 2007 to February 2022 that: were based in communities in South Asia, included a group component, reported on interventions with a clear psychosocial component, targeted adults and were implemented by lay community health workers. Two reviewers extracted data on intervention components, groups and facilitators, participant demographics and enabling contexts, mechanisms and outcomes. Expert reference panels including people with lived experience of psycho-social disability, mental health professionals and policy makers confirmed the validity and relevance of initial review findings. The review examined 15 interventions represented by 42 papers. Only four interventions were solely psycho-social and nearly all included psychoeducation and economic support. Only 8 of the 46 quantitative outcome measures used were developed in South Asia. In a context of social exclusion and limited autonomy for people with psychosocial disability, psychosocial support groups triggered five key mechanisms. Trusted relationships undergirded all mechanisms, and provided a sense of inclusion, social support and of being able to manage mental distress due to improved skills and knowledge. Over time group members felt a sense of belonging and collective strength meaning they were better able to advocate for their own well-being and address upstream social health determinants. This led to outcomes of improved mental health and social participation across the realms of intrapersonal, interpersonal and community. Psychosocial groups merit greater attention as an active ingredient in community interventions and also as an effective, relevant, acceptable and scalable platform that can promote and increase mental health in communities, through facilitation by lay community health workers.


Mental ill-health is experienced by more than 1 in 10 people in South Asia [1], home to 1.8 billion people and over one-fifth of the world’s population. Globally mental health problems are a leading cause of disease burden [2], yet 60% or more of people with mental distress in South Asia have little or no access to formal mental health services [3]. The reasons for this are complex: firstly, mental health services are patchy, poorly implemented and not integrated with primary care services [46]; secondly, mental health problems are stigmatised, reducing help-seeking [7, 8]; thirdly, mental and neurological problems are often culturally framed and yet too often health services are not responsive to local contexts and frameworks [9]; and fourthly, limited mental health literacy means people do not know where to start to seek help [10, 11].

There is growing evidence supporting the value of psycho-social interventions in general to address mental ill-health in low- and middle-income settings (LMIS) [12, 13], as well as evidence suggesting that group interventions specifically improve social networks and mental health [14]. Psycho-social group interventions are defined in this study as structured cognitive, behavioural and social interventions intended to improve mental health implemented among a group of people who meet together on multiple occasions [15, 16]. Supplementary research suggests groups can do this by providing a platform for rehearsal of social skills, increasing social connectedness and peer-friendship [17, 18]. Importantly, groups offer opportunities for scaling, which could address the care gap for mental health in low-income and middle-income countries [19]. They also offer a way to raise mental health awareness within communities which is particularly important in South Asian settings where social stigma limits access to mental health services [18, 20, 21]. Further, groups can improve social inclusion, discrimination and access to economic resources and allow group members to discuss and develop their own solutions [22]. Psycho-social groups are therefore a promising low-cost alternative for delivering basics of mental health care for people with mental distress in the context of South Asia, where government public health resources are limited.

Groups are described as a component of interventions in many studies from LMIS [2325]. A recent meta-analysis of studies primarily set in South Asia found that involvement in women’s groups practising participatory learning and action significantly reduced neonatal mortality [26]. However, despite research suggesting that groups, both formal and informal, can protect against mental health problems [27], they have not been evaluated independently as an intervention in the sphere of global mental health.

One of the most consistent critiques of global mental health solutions is that they propose a one-size-fits-all approach, for example, using diagnostic categories built on Western constructs [28]. Further, they do not take sufficient account of the very diverse cultural and social contexts which impact the ways that people with mental distress present, where they seek help, how they participate and how they engage with care and service provision [28, 29] leading to a mismatch in help-seeking and responses [6, 30]. An evidence review with focus on a regional area therefore has the potential to ensure that synthesis of evidence produces findings with greater validity and relevance. Additionally, there is growing attention to the relevance of context and mechanisms in evidence synthesis [31, 32] which is particularly a focus of realist review, which seek to provide an explanatory analysis of how and why complex social interventions work (mechanisms) in particular settings or contexts [33].

This review was undertaken with specific focus on the South Asian geographical area as defined by the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which includes the countries of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan and Bhutan. We recognise that this region shares many of the same economic, political, cultural and social features, for example, that the majority of elderly live with or are supported by their children, that divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing are relatively rare [34], that fertility is declining while age at marriage is rising, and that the majority of people hold a strong religious identity [35]. Economically all these countries are classified as low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) by the World Bank [36]. Therefore, despite Iyer proposing the lack of a cohesive South Asian identity [37], there are shared cultural and economic identities that justify analysing the region as a whole [38]. A focus on a geographic region that shares broad social and economic contexts, using a realist lens, we believe increases the relevance of this scoping review of evidence related to psycho-social group interventions.

Scoping reviews seek to map the existing literature on a subject and are useful when a body of literature has not yet been comprehensively reviewed. They are particularly useful for bringing together literature in disciplines with emerging evidence, as they are suited to addressing questions beyond those related to the effectiveness or experience of an intervention [39]. The aim of this study is to synthesise current evidence related to use of psycho-social groups as part of community-based mental health interventions in South Asia using a realist lens with specific research questions as follows:

(i) What types of psycho-social, group directed mental health interventions are being delivered by community mental health workers in South Asia?

(ii) What outcomes do they deliver and how are they measured?

(iii) What are possible mechanisms that trigger positive outcomes? What constrains positive outcomes?

Materials and methods

Framing the scoping review

This study was motivated by a question posed by practitioners who had noted the effectiveness of group platforms to improve mental health and social inclusion in a youth resilience intervention. Benefits were noted for participants almost regardless of the content of an intervention [17]. Practitioners (KM, PP) were working with Burans, a non-profit community health initiative based in North India and administered by Herbertpur Christian Hospital, a member of the Emmanuel Hospital Association [40]. Two published studies describe the organisational practices and approaches of Burans, and describe the value of attentive and innovative community mental health practice by local non-profit providers [41, 42]. A question with a local pose and gaze means it is more likely to be relevant and to lead to practical applications [43]. The search strategy and analysis were refined iteratively, in engagement with practitioners which included representatives from both southern and northern India and also included people who are experts by experience. Findings were triangulated with reference panels of local experts, who were able to engage with findings and increase their relevance and contextual validity.

Our focus was group interventions that are targeted primarily at adults from different family groups with a component designed to accomplish at least one of the following:

  • prevent or treat mental health problem (s);
  • support people who live with mental health problems and their carers;
  • improve resilience in the face of mental health problems.

We proposed that interventions should have a clear psychosocial component. While interventions could be short, and engage with existing groups, they should involve multiple sessions. Group interventions could also be part of larger interventions with individual, family, or screening components. We excluded interventions that were only described in popular media, that did not describe a group intervention or where groups were members of the same family or larger than 30 people in size, that were not set in South Asia, that were mainly delivered by health care professionals or were mainly biomedical, that had a primary focus on training community health workers, that did not focus on improving psychological wellbeing or that gave insufficient detail of the intervention.

We included interventions that were assessed in different ways, from RCTs to qualitative evaluations. Where interventions were tested using an RCT, we included the Study Protocol in our data sources, since these protocols often contain important information about the intervention itself that may not fit within the word count of the final RCT report. For interventions where data were reported in several papers, we included all papers with qualitative or quantitative results.

For the purpose of this review, we define psychosocial groups as meetings of 3–20 community members who meet intentionally three times or more, with the objective of improving psycho-social wellbeing or health. These meetings should be facilitated or organised by lay community-based worker(s). Groups can act directly as interventions or be a medium for other therapeutic interventions (for example, for delivery of facilitated curriculum content), and this review considered both.

This leads us to the following detailed specification, created using the SPIDER tool [44], given that our research questions are descriptive and qualitative.


Adults living in the community and affected by mental health problems. We included both studies of people with mental health problems and of those who care for them. Interventions should be carried out in, and benefit citizens of, the SAARC. Interventions who targeted both adults and young people (aged 14 and above) were also included.

Phenomenon of interest.

Psychosocial group interventions with a stated intention to support mental health in SAARC countries that are delivered by community workers or primary care health workers. Those workers should have no tertiary level training in medicine, social work, psychology, or one of the allied health professions, and they should not be training in a tertiary setting. However, these workers may be regarded as experts by their community and may have undergone rigorous apprenticeships in traditional forms of health/ medicine and physical, mental, and spiritual care provision.

A minimal description of the intervention should be available, covering who delivered it, what the content of the intervention was, and at whom the intervention was aimed.


Study protocols, implementation studies, qualitative studies, experience reports, evaluations, case studies, randomised controlled trials


Studies should report, or, in the case of study protocols, specify quantitative or qualitative outcomes of the intervention. Reports of implemented interventions should also mention barriers to and facilitators of success.

Research type.

mixed methods, quantitative research, qualitative research, study protocol, experience report

Protocol development

The protocol for this review was developed iteratively. We first performed a rapid review in January 2019, using the publicly available National Institute of Health’s PubMed service. The start date of 2007 was selected as the year that the Lancet launched their landmark Global mental health series [45]. We then reviewed the resulting papers to clarify inclusion and exclusion criteria; develop an easy-to-use extraction scheme within the software tool Covidence; refine the research questions; and generate seed papers for the main search. Using an initial focus on PubMed has been shown to be viable in situations where syntheses are needed urgently [46].

Once the protocol had been established, we conducted the main scoping review in July 2019, updating this in February 2022, following the steps set out by the Joanna Briggs institute [47]. Publications were reviewed by two reviewers at each stage of the process. A third reviewer mediated where there was divergence in reviewer ratings. After determining the papers to be included in the review, papers were grouped together if they reported on the same intervention in more than one paper. Data extraction and quality assessment was carried out by all authors in this paper except RMK and PP.

Search strategy

We searched Pubmed for the initial rapid review on January 3, 2019. This was followed by searching the following electronic databases through formal queries on June 16, 2019, and then finally updated and merged with a further search on Feb 7, 2022: OVID Medline, OVID EMBASE, OVID PsycInfo, and Scopus. For all databases, we chose the most up to date version of studies, where available.

The search strategies consisted of three sets of terms, one set consisting of the names of each of the eight SAARC countries, one set for mental health, which included terms such as “mental health”, “psycho-social”, “mental disease”, “mental wellbeing”, “mental stress”, “social support”, and one set for the delivery mechanism, which included terms such as “community care”, “community health”, “task shifting”, “mental health care”, and “mental health service”, “group”. Within each of the three sets, terms were joined by „or”. The search terms were chosen to ensure maximum coverage of different approaches, given that such groups are described using many different terms. In particular, we wanted to ensure coverage of interventions that follow psychosocial principles, but do not describe themselves as such. We developed the search terms based on a published mini review [48]. The three sets themselves were joined by “and”. We searched for papers that contained the terms in their title, abstract, or keywords.

Google Scholar and Web of Science were used for forward citation tracking of studies that meet the inclusion criteria after full text screening. Relevant systematic reviews were identified and hand-searched for additional studies. We also hand searched the relevant WHO database for the region, IMSEAR [49].

The grey literature search was conducted in mid-2019. Searches included brain storming with an advisory group of all known community mental health organisations in South Asia, followed up by an online search (Google) for NGOs and a review of interventions listed on the Mental Health Innovation Network website [50]. A list of 37 organisations was generated through internet searches, and contact emails were located from websites and networks of the advisory group. Emails were sent to the director of each organisation outlining the study objectives and requesting organisations to send relevant documents or links to documents. This exercise yielded responses from two organisations. We also conducted face-to-face meetings with relevant community mental health experts in India and Nepal.

Data extraction and synthesis.

We documented how the outcomes of the interventions were measured, which scales were used, and how they were reported qualitatively as well as quantitatively. We paid particular attention to potential mechanisms reported in qualitative findings or in the discussions of included studies.

We extracted study characteristics that were relevant to the context of the intervention, the type of psycho-social group mental-health intervention, information about the implementation of these groups and the composition of these groups, barriers to participation, outcomes linked to psychosocial groups, and potential mechanisms for these outcomes. Quantitative study characteristics and outcomes were summarised descriptively. Qualitative outcomes were analysed using thematic analysis, as suggested by Levac et al. [51].

Typically, scoping reviews do not include appraisals of the publications reviewed. We decided to report basic appraisal information to inform the planning of further dedicated qualitative and quantitative syntheses. We created a custom tool with three main parts: Quality and depth of the intervention description; Quality of any quantitative findings [informed by the CONSORT reporting guidelines]; Quality of any qualitative findings (informed by the SRQR reporting guidelines). The tool is summarised in Table 1. This tool was applied on the level of the intervention rather than on the level of individual papers. We did this because different analyses from the same intervention provided different levels of detail, and a focus on an intervention [which be published with multiple outputs] gave us the most complete information to assess the quality of an intervention.

Stakeholder consultation.

This review was undertaken by researchers living in South Asia and high-income countries. Recognising that the deepest knowledge about local contexts is held by communities and practitioners based in those settings [43], findings from the initial rapid review were reviewed by two reference panels who validated and prioritised preliminary findings. The first panel comprised 11 mental health practitioners from across India which included psychiatrists, social workers, policy makers, researchers, non-profit and governmental organisations and service user movement representatives (Practitioner panel). They met in Delhi on 2nd May 2019 in a workshop facilitated by KM, PP and SD. The second panel was made up of 11 experts by experience (EBE panel) i.e. people with lived experience of mental health problems residing in informal urban communities in Dehradun, North India. They met on 28th June 2019 in a workshop facilitated by KM and PP. Findings from these reference panels are threaded through the review outputs.

Ethics approval for the two panel workshops was granted by the Institutional Ethics committee of the Emmanuel Hospital Association, New Delhi in March 2019. All participants in the expert panels gave signed consent for the participation and data.


This review examines 15 interventions, which were documented in 42 papers. Only a handful of included studies provided sufficient detail on the context and mechanisms to allow formation of context–mechanism- outcome configurations generated in realist synthesis [33]; so instead, we used a realist lens and examined available information on enabling contexts, and interventions to identify possible mechanisms that trigger mental health and outcomes linked to psychosocial groups. We show the study selection process in Fig 1 with a PRISMA diagram.

Study context

All of the interventions were conducted in at least one of the SAARC countries, three of which were multi-country. The countries in which the studies took place were India (9 interventions / 17 papers), Pakistan (4 interventions / 15 papers), Bangladesh (2 interventions / 3 papers), and Nepal (3 interventions / 4 papers) and multiple South Asian sites [52]. Rural and disadvantaged communities were included in multiple studies. Seven studies were set in communities affected by a humanitarian crisis such as earthquake or tsunami [5359].

Participants in groups were primarily women in the reproductive age range, many of whom experienced socio-economic disadvantage such as completing fewer than ten years of schooling however several studies also included men as participants [5864]. And a few studies only included people with experience of mental distress: [18, 6062, 6466].

Table 2 summarises key study characteristics to show the wide range of contexts, participants and types of psychosocial groups. Detail of the demographics of study participants is provided in S1 File.

Types of psycho-social group mental health interventions

Community mental health workers in South Asia deliver diverse group mental health interventions in a range of contexts. Each study utilized a distinct theoretical framework, and the frequency of delivery varied greatly. Some delivered sessions intensively for short periods of time, such as 60 minutes daily for eight days [56], while others met over a longer time, for example, monthly for 20 months [52, 60, 69];. Despite the heterogeneous approaches, several common themes emerged:

Most studies sought to build skills and knowledge in mental health using psychoeducational components, [19, 22, 52, 60, 61, 6365, 68, 69, 72, 73, 77, 79, 82]. Several interventions provided both a mental and physical health component or addressed women-specific issues like perinatal depression and child health [22, 52, 68, 69].

Typically, mental health interventions combined with other forms of support. Only three studies implemented a mental health intervention alone. Eight of the 15 interventions offered economic support such as microcredit loans [55, 72, 75], emergency funds [68], and discussing strategies for generating income as part of practical problem-solving within therapy sessions [22, 55, 62, 72, 75, 78, 79]. While the other interventions reviewed did not provide tangible economic support, several emphasized socio-economic status as a key mental health determinant [18, 55, 60, 66, 72].

In addition to building economic skills, other interventions included supporting groups to participate in rights-based activities [19, 62] or promoted collective action from psychosocial groups such as advocating with local authorities to improve mental health services [62, 68, 73].

Implementation of groups

In most studies, group facilitation was conducted by women from the community with 10–12 years of education, although a small number of facilitators were more highly trained and from outside the community [55, 61, 72]. Groups that were facilitated by local community members with lived experience shared with participants reported that this led to increased acceptability and relevance of groups [18, 52, 55, 6163, 68, 69, 80, 82, 83, 87]. The majority of interventions provided training in group facilitation skills using a ‘train the trainer’ model as well as providing training in structured content [for example a curriculum] which was followed by ongoing coaching. All studies financially remunerated facilitators to a varying degree although one study reported that facilitators were also motivated by altruism and ‘in kind’ returns from community members [63]. Details on processes of facilitator recruitment, training and groups (duration, frequency, group size and meeting content) are also summarised in Table 2.

Groups using vignettes, roleplays and games and dialogue/ conversations found this approach was more likely to lead to engagement as they were culturally accessible and used a participatory format [52, 62, 63]. Authors also described increased compliance due to ‘social prestige’ in practising behaviours recommended by the group [69]. Facilitators with a good reputation and who provided training, support, feedback and sustained support (and who refrained from advice giving) were more highly regarded by group members [18, 63, 69, 87].

Both expert panels endorsed the value of trained facilitators from the community, particularly when starting a group. The EBE panel also proposed that use of dialogue rather than didactic approaches to teach knowledge and skills, were more effective at enabling positive mental health outcomes.

Group composition

Groups that were made up of people who were socio-demographically similar were considered easier to facilitate and built trust and connection more quickly [18, 22, 52, 62] and in line with this, nearly all studies in this review focused on groups where membership and facilitation was female. Studies described that when members shared culture, values, and beliefs this facilitated peer friendships and relationships outside the group setting [18, 64, 69] which was valuable for building long-term social support. Conversely, other studies found that groups with heterogeneous membership were more challenging to facilitate [63, 72]. One study described women who were employed or with more years of education were more rapidly able to build social connections and networks [18, 52]. Groups that functioned for more than several months reported growing trust, sharing of personal issues which led to the formation of peer friendships [18, 61, 62, 64, 72, 83, 87].

The Practitioner panel noted that most groups in this review were primarily for women, suggesting that men are less likely to join groups because they typically are away from home during work hours. They suggested that it would be useful to develop groups to meet men’s psycho-social needs that are specifically facilitated by men, for men. They highlighted possible synergies could build on pre-existing community groups, such as sports or farmers’ groups to meet the psycho-social needs of men.

Barriers to participation in psycho-social groups

Joining groups was more difficult for people with a stigmatised social identity, such as widows of intravenous drug users [22] or people with severe mental illness [63, 82]. To mitigate this, one intervention provided a financial contribution to enable disadvantaged women to join programs [22]. Others, however, identified that financial incentives led to disputes and poorer group relations [18, 63, 69].

Being able to participate in groups was also a challenge for women without freedom of movement, due to the restrictive gender relations in South Asia. This was particularly difficult for women who were socio-economically disadvantaged [18, 55, 6264, 69, 82]. In fact, gender relations were such a strong barrier to women’s group participation in one study, that restrictive gender relations were identified as key to an inconclusive result [69].

Further barriers were linked to concerns about the confidentiality of personal information and cultural relevance of the intervention content. Several studies found that participants were unwilling to disclose personal information [22, 72, 87]. In several studies, group members expressed concerns about sharing in groups where group facilitators and members are often part of the same community [61, 63]. In addition, challenges were linked to culturally adapting group resources to ensure they were linguistically and contextually appropriate [22].

The Practitioner panel proposed confidentiality concerns as an important barrier to group participation, and suggested this is more challenging where a group is led by a community peer. The EBE panel suggested strategies to mitigate this include raising and discussing confidentiality issues at an early stage, such as including a statement on confidentiality in collectively developing group ground rules.

Outcomes linked to psychosocial groups

Studies in this review used 46 different validated quantitative measures, 38 [83%] of which were built on Western biomedical constructs and just eight measures developed in South Asia. Psychometric measures can be less valid or accurate when they are used in a different setting or country to the place where they were originally developed. In a new setting they may fail to describe or represent the features of mental health or sickness which are determined culturally, socially and politically [90]. There is an ‘ongoing need for in the conceptualization and measurement of culture- specific psychopathology and in developing culturally responsive interventions’ [91]. Outcomes were not easily comparable because of the range of interventions, measures, and types of groups, as well as the diverse nature of the study contexts. Table 3 summarises quantitative measures used in the papers reviewed.

Table 3. Variables and scales used for social and health outcomes in this review.

The key outcomes and enabling contextual factors of psychosocial groups are summarised in Table 4.

Table 4. Key outcomes and enabling contextual factors of psychosocial groups in South Asia.

The primary outcomes of psychosocial support groups, as reported across both qualitative and quantitative studies, can be grouped into intrapersonal, interpersonal and community themes:


Nearly all studies that used quantitative measures reported significantly improved mental health and wellbeing for group members using pre-post comparisons and when measured against control groups. Some studies observed no significant improvements in mental health and wellbeing which was attributed to under-powered sample size [58], use of non-validated measures [56] and improvements that lasted only a short time [65, 69] or use of minimally trained peer group facilitators [63]. Due to the large variation in outcome measures, a meta-analysis is not feasible.


Studies reported improved peer interaction, which increased rehearsal of mental health skills [61, 62] and increased perceived social support from other group members [18, 52, 62, 63, 68, 72], proposed to be a key enabling mechanisms. Another outcome described was improved financial status and income generating in households [62, 72, 75, 7880].


Studies described increased trust and social relationships in groups which led to increased social confidence, improved communication skills, and improved social network of people to call on during a crisis [18, 22, 52, 62, 63, 68, 75, 7780, 87]. They also described other pragmatic benefits like sharing of knowledge on where to access resources or direct sharing of resources between group members [52, 62, 68, 72, 75, 80].

Both reference panels endorsed these findings. The Practitioner panel underlined that groups can spread limited mental health resources further, thus being more cost-effective than individual therapy, while the EBE panel additionally proposed that groups can increase social inclusion and supportive relationships/ friendships and are more fun to attend than individual psychotherapeutic sessions. These findings were supported by quantitative measures, which found that groups improved attitudes and awareness of mental health problems among the community.

Mechanisms linked to outcomes

Some mechanisms, such as developing trust could be understood as both an intermediate outcome, as well as a mechanism. We identified five key mechanisms by which groups can improve mental health:

The underlying base mechanism that seems to trigger the subsequent four mechanisms is a sense of being part of trusted relationships with other group members. In Southern India, participation in self-help groups was identified as leading to increased interpersonal trust, which the study posited led to greater cooperation, increased social belonging and mental wellbeing [72]. Trust was described as improving the quality of conversations and relationship in groups, leading to more vulnerable sharing and collective problem solving [18, 72]. Another study also proposed these trusting relationships enabled group members to act as therapeutic agents to each other [65]. Data conversely supporting this was a short-duration group intervention in Bangladesh which failed to improve mental health measures among postnatally depressed women, whose authors proposed that the limited time in groups meant less building of mutual trust may have contributed to the lack of successful outcome [69].

A second mechanism that supported outcomes was that forming relationships which is facilitated through the group platforms triggered a sense of inclusion and support, which then meant they could access both physical and social resources and thus felt able to participate [52, 72]. For example, in a post-disaster situation, formation of groups helped with restoring social relationships and accessing resources [55, 56]. Similarly, Rao suggested that reciprocity and shared activity of a micro-credit and savings group accelerated trust between group members [72].

A third key mechanism feeling able to manage mental distress due to improved psycho-social skills and knowledge [18, 19, 22, 52, 72, 77]. Authors proposed that groups offered a safe space unburden and share problems [52, 62, 68, 72, 75, 80]., and also to learn skills in problem solving, rehearse communication and increase mental health skills. The safe learning space offered by the group environment led to greater participation and sharing of experience and therefore exposure to a broader range of coping strategies and problem solving from group members [18, 22, 52, 6264, 68, 72, 75, 77, 80].

A fourth mechanism was that a group membership triggered a sense of belonging. Authors noted this sense of belonging and trust took time to develop meaning that relationships grew stronger with time [18, 22, 52, 61, 63, 72, 77]. This sense of belonging triggered behaviour changes, for example, widows in North East India described that they were able to identify and control feelings of anger because of their sense of safety in the group [22].

A final mechanism was a sense of collective strength particularly among women [18, 72], which supported women to resist gender norms and to act autonomously and also take actions for advocacy for their own well-being [18]. This was described as then contributing to improved mental health [18, 22, 52, 63, 67].

The Practitioner panel underlined the value of increased mental health knowledge and skills to lead to outcomes while the EBE panel particularly underlined the value of increased social connection and peer friendships which was linked to a sense of trust and belonging. They also noted that homogeneous groups were better able to provide social support and friendship, which could then trigger improved mental health outcomes.

Our program theory builds on the above findings and is summarised here narratively

In a context where people with psychosocial disability are socially excluded and have limited autonomy, psychosocial support groups can provide a safe space that facilitates a sense of mutual trust and the opportunity to participate in trusted relationship with peers. These relationships trigger a sense of inclusion and mutual social support, feeling able to manage one’s mental distress, belonging and collective strength. This triggers group members to take collective action that addresses structural and intermediary determinants of health and leads to outcomes of improved mental health and greater social participation and inclusion. We note that the distinction between outcomes and mechanisms and lines of causation are blurred and often bi-directional. A simplistic schematic summary of the context, enablers, mechanisms and outcomes is presented in Fig 2.

Fig 2. Schematic representation of the context, mechanisms and outcomes linked to participation in psychosocial groups in South Asia.


The benefits of psychosocial groups

This review aimed to use a realist lens to investigate the use of psycho-social groups as mental health interventions in South Asia, looking at how groups were setup [demographics, facilitators, interventions] as well as measures, outcomes and proposed mechanisms.

There was evidence that group interventions can have multiple positive effects for individual participants. This included improvements in mental health and wellbeing, social inclusion, self-efficacy and, depending on the nature of the group, financial position. Many of these benefits centred on the relationships in the groups, which enabled sharing of coping strategies and rehearsal of social skills, as well as access to an increased social network and, by extension, social support which could improve social capital as well as provide a sense of belonging [18, 52]. Trust seemed to be integral to realising these benefits, both in terms of trusted relationships between group members and trust in the group setup itself, for example that the group was facilitated in a way which was confidential and sensitive to local dynamics, and trust seems likely to be a core requirement for all group mental health interventions in this context. This review highlighted that local facilitators may have an advantage in understanding these contextual dynamics and ensuring group content is relevant [52]. The presence of government incentivised community health workers across South Asia (for example, Lady Health workers in Pakistan, Auxiliary Nurse Midwives and Accredited Social Health Activists in India) offers a vast opportunity for facilitation of group interventions which has barely been explored [93].

Findings point to a connection between these benefits and duration of group participation. However, some of the longer interventions suggest benefits plateau after six to eight months [52, 68, 69]. It may be that peer friendships and collective action are established and continue informally after a few months regardless of formal meeting structures. Further research needs to examine the duration of groups and how and whether new peer relationships are sustained, and how.

Beyond individual effects, this review identified that group participation seemed to build an ability to act collectively. This has also been found in a meta-analysis examining groups among pregnant women in South Asia [26]. Acting collectively is a key component of mental health competent communities [42, 9497], facilitating community engagement, advocacy, social inclusion and improved economic status [98, 99]. Thus, in connecting the individual to the social and in their ability to improve capacity for community action, psycho-social groups can influence the structural factors contributing to mental ill-health, both responding to mental health needs and reducing future need [100].

These potential benefits are increased by the fact that groups seem to be a socially acceptable form of intervention in various community settings of South Asia, and some evidence suggested they were a preferred form of psychosocial support, for example compared to individual counselling for women in North India [18]. Additionally, group interventions may be more accessible for certain marginalised groups, such as widows of intravenous drug users in of our reviewed studies [22] and women in low income communities [18], who otherwise may face barriers due to stigmatisation. However, our literature search did not identify interventions targeting minority groups such as LGBTQ+, Dalit, or disabled individuals and further research should examine barriers to participation for such groups. Group intervention also allow a larger number of people to access interventions at one time meaning they are likely to be more cost effective than individual therapies, especially when facilitated by lay community members [101], however further research needs to examine the cost-effectiveness of group vs individual interventions.

Gender and psychosocial groups

The majority of studies in this review implemented psychosocial groups among women, although this may have been skewed by our exclusion of studies linked to alcohol and substance abuse. Women are systematically disadvantaged across South Asia, for example India is ranked 140th and Pakistan 153rd out of 156 countries in the gender parity index of the Global Gender gap report in 2021 [102]. This structural gender inequality is a key contextual mental health determinant, negatively affecting women’s wellbeing and access to care [103, 104]. Our review identified that for women, psychosocial groups are accessible, acceptable and feasible to participate in, with additional functions such as microfinance making participation in groups even more legitimate and practical, linked to greater financial stability and prestige associated with providing income in the household [52].

However, almost no studies included men, despite evidence that men benefit from participation in psychosocial groups in high income settings [105]. Gender norms that confer status on men also carry risks for poor mental health. In South Asia, men are more likely than women to engage in interpersonal violence, harmful use of alcohol and other drugs, and suicide [106]. Men are also less likely to acknowledge vulnerability or anxiety and thus to seek help with health professional or peers [107, 108]. Gender plays a critical role in mental health for both women and men, and this review identifies that addressing gender relations through psychosocial support groups as well as through other interventions is central to promote mental health in the South Asian region.

Context-specificity, heterogeneity and methodology

South Asia presents diverse settings. This study was motivated by a question posed by a local organisation in North India. A research question with a local pose and gaze means it is more likely to be relevant and to lead to practical applications [43]. The dominance of Euro-America and biomedicine in global mental health are reflected in the fact that just 8 of 46 measures used by researchers in this review had been developed in South Asia. Further research may benefit from comparing results from locally developed measures with those from measures developed elsewhere in order to ascertain whether measures capture the priorities of communities within the SAARC context.


This review has important policy and research implications. It demonstrates psychosocial groups as highly cost-effective [26] and improving health and social outcomes within existing health system structures [101, 109]. Rolled out at scale, psychosocial groups can provide policy makers with a core strategy to increase the reach and effectiveness of current mental health services. For example, the mechanism of increased sense of ability to manage distress suggests the need to prioritize active learning in a way that people can apply in their own local contexts. Thus, psychosocial groups can address contextual issues that affect mental health and which cannot be effectively resolved in one-on-one therapy alone.

The value of psychosocial groups to our knowledge has not been codified in national mental health policy in any South Asian nation. India’s National Mental Health Programme through its District Mental Health Programme [DMHP] includes a [psychiatric] social worker as part of the team, although this is constrained by the biomedical orientation of the DMHP [30, 110]. Similarly, in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, a key priority is building capacity in mental health skills and knowledge for community health workers [111113]. While micro-credit and savings or “Self-help groups” as well as farmers groups, operate widely in South Asia and could be tapped as a community resource, they would require resources including training and orientation from District Mental Health Programme mental health personnel.

Further research is needed to further examine the contribution of psychosocial groups in mental health globally, including among men. Randomised controlled trials typically lacks information about contexts and mechanisms which are often the most important determinants of local mental health outcomes [9, 43, 94, 114, 115]. Qualitative companion papers can provide detail on what works, for whom, under what circumstances (eg. In this review, Morrison et al., 2019 [52]). Global mental health and research that evaluates complex interventions requires methodologies that engage with the critical knowledge held by communities, and these are typically qualitative [43, 116].

Strengths and limitations of the methods

There are several methodological limitations: First, it was difficult to describe psychosocial groups appropriately in the search. It is therefore possible that we excluded studies where psychosocial aspects of intervention groups had significant mental health benefits but were not described as such, for example, group interventions that address alcohol and/or substance abuse. Second, the realist lens we hoped to use in this review was constrained by limited information in our included papers which rarely described contexts and mechanisms [33, 117]. Without this information, we were unable to fully analyze the factors that contributed to the success of psychosocial interventions. Third, while we reviewed literature on SAARC countries, our stakeholder engagement was limited to India due to a limited budget which precluded travel to conduct reference panels in other South Asian countries. Contributions from researchers in other SAARC contexts may offer further insight into the commonalities and differences that facilitate the benefits of psychosocial interventions within local communities. Fourth, we did not specifically examine or identify from the selected studies, how psychosocial group interventions work for minorities groups such as LGBTQI or oppressed caste groups. Further research will be necessary in order to determine whether such groups receive equal benefits from similar mental health interventions. Fifth, recognising that the majority of psychometric measures used in this study were developed outside of South Asia, the measures may be less accurate and relevant for this setting compared to the place where they were first developed.

Strengths of this study include our effort to include grey literature (and the associated learnings from non-academic practitioners), and triangulation of the findings with reference panels [practitioners and EBE]. These efforts allowed us to include perspectives that are not always represented within biomedical research, but which can help to shed light on the effects of various intervention methods within a community. Additionally, like Daudt et al. [118], we started with a broad question and we had to narrow down the scope of the work, clarify relevant concepts, and constantly review our inclusion criteria. This flexibility ensured that the focus of our research could be as specific as possible, as central concepts were repeatedly reviewed to ensure relevance for our topic. A further strength was the transdisciplinary team which include people specialised in public health, social work and psychiatry backgrounds, social work and health informatics backgrounds. These diverse perspectives offered insight into the different considerations surrounding mental health interventions, including their interplay with cultural context and practical issues such as the cost of implementation.


This is the first review to our knowledge to examine the contribution of psycho-social groups as a mental health intervention in low- and middle-income countries. We examined 15 interventions in South Asia and found they were almost universally acceptable, relevant, and effective in improving mental health. Psycho-social groups work across a wide range of contexts in South Asia and further, can potentially address social and structural causes of mental ill-health. The group format appears to support several interconnected mechanisms that build on trusting relationships between group members, and integrate increased individual self-efficacy with collective action can improve mental health and social participation.

Despite the evidence of group interventions as effective and scalable, no national mental health policies in South Asia identify psychosocial groups as a platform to provide care to our knowledge. Psychosocial groups as a means to promote and improve mental health merit further research and policy attention and have significant potential to contribute to contextually relevant mental health care in South Asia.

Supporting information

S2 File. PRISMA checklist for scoping reviews.



Appreciation for the time and critical reflections shared by the Experts by Experience group members from Kanwali road and Brahmanwallah communities in Dehradun, Uttarakhand and also appreciation to the Technical Experts in Community mental health in India group members who participated in the meeting held in New Delhi on 2nd May 2019 which included board certified psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric social workers and leaders of non-profit community mental health organisations: Alok Sarin, Anish Cherian, Bhargavi Davar, Jagadisha Thirthalli, Prasad, Rajeshwari, Triptish Bhatia, Madhu Juneja, Pallab Maulik, Satabdi Chakrabarty

We are also thankful to Pooja Bhatt, Kakul Sairam, Jeet Bahadur, Laxman Balan, Samson Rana and Atul Goodwin Singh for support in this project as well as ongoing administrative support from Herbertpur Christian Hospital. Marshall Dozier supported search strategy development, and Claudia Pagliari commented on an early version of the study protocol.


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