Zimbabwe has spearheaded a surprising mental health program in the shape of the Friendship Bench, which is yielding incredible results– and the rest of the world is following suit.
Dixon Chibanda is one of 12 psychiatrists in Zimbabwe, for a population of more than 16 million. In brainstorming how to bring affordable, accessible and highly effective mental health services to his country, he came up with an unlikely solution to help people with depression: that of using grandmothers and a bench. The grandmothers help people in a simple way, by encouraging them to talk, to open their minds and hearts, all while sitting on a bench outside. It is just a conversation with someone who cares and understands, and it works!
Since 2006, Chibanda and his team have trained over 400 grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy, which they deliver for free in more than 70 communities in Zimbabwe. In 2017 alone, the Friendship Bench, as the program is called, has helped over 30,000 people there.
“The training package itself is rooted in evidence-based therapy, but it’s also equally rooted in indigenous concepts,” Chibanda says. “I think that’s largely one of the reasons it’s been successful, because it’s really managed to bring together these different pieces using local knowledge and wisdom.”
In 2016, Chibanda – collaborating with colleagues from Zimbabwe and the UK – published the results of a randomized control trial of the program’s efficacy in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“We were thrilled to bits with the results, which showed the intervention is having a big effect on people’s daily lives and ability to function,” shared Victoria Simms, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and co-author of the study. “It’s about giving people the tools they need to solve their own problems.”
Two more scientific trials are now underway, she adds, including one examining a new Youth Friendship Bench programme in Harare and another set up specifically for young people who are HIV-positive.
The program has also expanded to several countries, and it turns out that grandmothers are not the only ones capable of giving effective counseling. In Malawi, the Friendship Bench uses elderly counselors of both genders, while Zanzibar uses younger men and women. New York City’s counselors are the most diverse, including individuals of all ages and races, some of whom come from the LGBTQ community.
The New York City benches – which are bright orange – were launched in mid-2017, attracting some 30,000 visitors during their first year. The city so far has three permanent benches in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Harlem. Friendship Bench counselors also make themselves available immediately following community tragedies.
“This isn’t just a solution for low-income countries,” Simms says. “This may well be a solution that every country in the world could benefit from.”