Mental health clinics around Zimbabwe’s major cities have implemented nontraditional offices to provide further support to their clients. These spaces are called Friendship Benches and are staffed by community health workers known as “Grandmothers.” The Grandmothers are trained to listen and offer help to patients living with common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
The Friendship Benches and their influence on Zimbabwean communities has recently been studied. The study shows that the initiative has had an unprecedented effect on those who have used the benches. In addition, the initiative has the potential to serve millions more, especially those who have little to no access to mental health care in their countries.
According to questionnaires, participants saw significant decreases in the severity of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts after having six weekly “problem solving therapy” sessions on the Friendship Benches. Patients were four times less likely to have anxiety symptoms and three times less likely to have symptoms of depression, compared to patients who received standard care. The study showed that the Friendship Benches also helped improve the health outcomes of vulnerable individuals. Of the study’s participants, 86% were women, 70% had experienced domestic violence or physical illness, and over 40% were HIV positive.
The study’s main author, Dr. Dixon Chibanda, co-founded the Friendship Bench Network in response to the shortage of evidence-based treatment for Zimbabweans who suffer from mental disorders. This, sadly, is a common problem in Africa.
“Common mental disorders impose a huge burden on all countries of sub-Saharan Africa,” said Dr. Chibanda. “Developed over 20 years of community research, the Friendship Bench empowers people to achieve a greater sense of coping and control over their lives by teaching them a structured way to identify problems and find workable solutions.”
Dr. Peter A. Singer, Chief Executive Officer of Grand Challenges Canada, applauded the Friendship Bench Network. “In developing countries, nearly 90% of people with mental disorders are unable to access any treatment. We need innovations like the Friendship Bench to flip the gap and go from 10% of people receiving treatment to 90% of people receiving treatment.”
Over 27, 500 Zimbabweans have accessed treatment through the Friendship Benches. The Friendship Bench Network team is focusing on expanding to reach more vulnerable populations, such as youth and refugees. They have formed a partnership with Swedish company, SolidarMed, and are planning to implement Friendship Benches in the Masyingo province and in refugee centers on the border with Mozambique.