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The Friendship Bench: Africa’s Response To Mental Health

April 10, 2017: A grandmother lay health worker with the Friendship Bench Project speaks to a woman during a counselling session at Western Triangle Clinic in Highfield, Harare.

Over thousands of individuals across countries in Africa suffer from mental health illness. This population includes both adults and children, it is estimated that 3% of children aged 0-9 suffer from psychosocial development due to neglect from their mothers and other persons around them.

Research also shows that Africa has just 1.4 mental health workers per 100,000 mental health illness patients compared to the global rate of 9.0 workers to 100,000 patients. More so, in Africa, there are few medical facilities that accommodate and treat patients suffering from mental health illness.

This has been greatly poor for social development in Africa and over the years, has given rise to suicide cases and poor work performance in the labour sector.

The damage of mental health problems is fast becoming a delicate issue in society today. Various organizations have taken it upon themselves to raise more awareness of the causes, symptoms and effects on the psychological and social well-being of an individual.

In a quest for creating more awareness and offering treatment, the community of Zimbabwe implemented a peculiar kind of treatment program “The Friendship Bench”. The project is a community development program, which serves as a tool for bridging the gap between people in society through having group interventions. Focusing, more on individuals suffering from various types of mental health disorder such as; anxiety and depression. This program came into the picture through the initiation of Dr Chibanda and his team in 2006.

The Friendship Bench | Image: Centre for Global Mental Health

Dr Chibanda is a psychiatrist and an associate professor at the University of Zimbabwe Clinical Research Center also, the director of the African Mental Health Research initiative. His initiation of “The Friendship Bench’’ was born out of the need to help save the lives of people living with mental health illness that couldn’t afford to pay for therapy sessions and other medications. He once lost a patient to suicide, the same week the patient was due to undergo therapy under his administration but couldn’t come due to bus fare to the clinic, the patient couldn’t afford.

The program takes a different approach to mental illness treatment, by having outdoor therapy sessions on benches in a secluded area within the compound of clinics in the community. These sessions are facilitated by old women in the community who voluntarily wish to help. These volunteers are mostly of no medical background but are trained by medical practitioners on how to administer counsel to psychological distorted patients. This is also a form of educating and giving relevance to old people living in society.

Since the program creation to date, it has trained over 600 old women in evidence based-talk therapy. This has been done for free in over 70 communities, both rural and urban in Zimbabwe. In 2017 over 30,000 people were involved in the therapy sessions. Results have also shown that since the introduction there has been a decrease in the number of persons suffering from mental health illness. People of humble background also now have unrestricted access to treatment.

Now, the ‘’friendship Bench’’ program has travelled beyond the borders of Zimbabwe. Places like Malawi, Zanzibar, and New York City have adopted the same approach with the hope of decreasing the number of beings suffering from mental health problems just as it has helped in Zimbabwe.

The friendship bench program, in essence, is one that aims at creating a serene space and sense of belonging for people in the lower, middle and high class, harbouring the pain of depression in various communities. Do you think your community needs a friendship bench?

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