This is how the Friendship Bench Project, in Zimbabwe, is driving an unconventional approach to dealing with alarming mental health issues

This is how the Friendship Bench Project, in Zimbabwe, is driving an unconventional approach to dealing with alarming mental health issues

Illnesses that affects the thought process, feelings of behavior of an individual must be taken as serious as illnesses that affects the physical body. Mental illnesses can affect relationships whether professional or intimate and ignoring that certain persons do experience mental illness doesn’t help.

There has been an alarming increase in mental health cases globally and it has become paramount to find healthy ways to deal with these issues as it affects every sphere of human existence. Before this era, cases of individuals with mental illness have been treated with somewhat bizzare methods like locking such individuals in a room, chaining them in confined locations, trephination, bloodletting and purging and so on.

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In Zimbabwe, the Friendship Bench project which started in a township called Mbare in 2007, through  a group of well trained Lay Health Workers, is currently offering a very  brief psychological intervention  to address depression in primary healthcare centres. This project focuses on helping victims in rural areas of the country as well as low income earners. People from low income backgrounds are mostly overlooked when it comes to acceptable treatment options for mental illnesses, often times they are left with local methods which in most cases subjects affected individual to very harsh curative measures.

Dr. Christine Moutier of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) revealed to CNN, “People see connection between mental health and overall well-being, our ability to function at work and at home and how we view the world around us.” This shows the immense need for individuals, global communities and their governments to take the issue of mental health more serious.

The friendship bench project uses a more unconventional therapy method where therapy sessions, conducted by lay health workers who are mostly grandmothers, are usually held outdoors— under trees while sitting on benches— and the focus is on helping those with common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Dixon Chibanda, the founder of the Friendship Bench project who is an associate professor at the University of Zimbabwe and the director of the African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI), was particular about using elderly members of various low income communities in Zimbabwe because he discovered that the country had very few psychiatrists and physiologists to cater for a population of 10 million people at the time.

He saw the urgent need to find more realistic ways to give people in low income communities access to good and affordable treatments by using evidence-based talk therapy and attentive listening as an accessible alternative to mental illness care. He looked for grandmothers who where already working in the community, in diverse ways, with focus on the ones that had strong listening skills, ability to convey empathy without judgements and ability to reflect on what victims might have to say.

The project kicked off in 2007 with 14 just grandmothers in Mbare, a suburb of Harare that was badly in need of such medical attention.  Today, with Harare having more than 53 primary health care facilities, each has between one to four benches where therapy sessions are conducted by grandmothers, the well trained lay health workers supervised also by health professionals, after properly screening victims to know the level of mental health disorder.


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