July 24, 2024

Serene Nest

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Grannies on Friendship Bench help Zimbabweans deal with mental health issues

3 min read

After her son, the family’s shining light and only breadwinner was arrested last year, 57-year-old Tambudzai Tembo went into meltdown.

In Zimbabwe, where clinical mental health services are scarce, her chances of getting professional help were next to zero. She contemplated suicide.

A wooden bench and an empathetic grandmother saved her.

Older people are at the centre of a homegrown form of mental health therapy in Zimbabwe that is now being adopted in places like the United States.

The approach involves setting up benches in quiet, discreet corners of community clinics, in some churches, poor neighbourhoods, and at a university.

An older woman with basic training in problem-solving therapy patiently sits there, ready to listen and engage in a one-on-one conversation.

The therapy is inspired by traditional practice in Zimbabwe in which grandmothers were the go-to people for wisdom in rough times.

It had been abandoned with urbanisation, the breakdown of tight-knit extended families and modern technology.

Now, it is proving useful again as mental health needs grow.

“Grandmothers are the custodians of local culture and wisdom. They are rooted in their communities,” said Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatry professor and founder of the Friendship Bench initiative.

“They don’t leave, and in addition, they have an amazing ability to use what we call ‘expressed empathy’, to make people feel respected and understood.”

Last year, Chibanda was named the winner of a $150,000 prize by the US-based McNulty Foundation for revolutionising mental healthcare.

He said the concept has taken root in parts of Vietnam, Botswana, Malawi, Kenya, and Tanzania, and is in “preliminary formative work” in London.

In New York, the city’s new mental health plan launched last year says it is “drawing inspiration” from what it calls the Friendship Bench to help address risk factors such as social isolation.

The orange benches can now be found in areas including Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

In Washington, the organisation HelpAge USA is piloting the concept under the DC Grandparents for Mental Health initiative.

So far, 20 grandmothers determined to “stop the stigma around mental health and make it okay to talk about feelings” have been trained by a team from Friendship Bench Zimbabwe.

They are being taught to listen, empathise, and empower others to solve their problems, said Cindy Cox-Roman, the president and chief executive of HelpAge USA.

She said benches will be set up at places of worship, schools, and wellness centres in Washington’s low-income communities with people who “have been historically marginalized”.

Chibanda’s idea was born out of tragedy. In 2005, he was a young psychiatrist and one of just over 10 in Zimbabwe.

One of his patients desperately wanted to see him, but she could not afford the $15 bus fare. He later learned that she had killed herself.

Chibanda recruited 14 grandmothers in the neighbourhood near the hospital where he worked in the capital, Harare, and trained them.

They get $25 a month to help with transport and phone bills.

The network, which now partners with the health ministry and the World Health Organization, has grown to over 2,000 grandmothers across the country.

In 2023, over 200,000 Zimbabweans sat on a bench to get therapy from a trained grandmother the network said.

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