In the early 2000s, when there were just two psychiatrists serving over 12 million people, Zimbabwe had to get creative to treat depression. Now, one bright idea – the Friendship Bench – is spreading far and wide. In this feature for Mosaic, Alex Riley finds out how a group of 14 elderly women took on the responsibility of providing psychological therapies for the people of Mbare.
If you want to dive deeper into this topic, here’s some further reading. We’ve broken things down into key subtopics, but otherwise these links aren’t listed in any particular order – so feel free to dip in and out.
The Friendship Bench project
The Friendship Bench project trains lay health workers to treat depression outside of clinical settings using a technique called problem-solving therapy. Benches, placed out in the community, are the platform for the therapy.
Visit the Friendship Bench website for further information about the project, photo galleries, awareness leaflets and other resources. You can also follow the Friendship Bench Twitter for the most recent news.
This paper from 2016 investigates the effectiveness of using lay health workers to treat common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. The results found that after six months, symptoms showed improvement.
In this 2017 report, Dixon Chibanda reflects on the lessons of the Friendship Bench project in Zimbabwe. Chibanda concludes that the continuing growth of the project will depend on how well it can make use of new technology.
Mental health in Zimbabwe
Robert Mugabe resigned as the President of Zimbabwe in November 2017, ushering in a “new era” for the country.
Dixon Chibanda wrote about the lasting traumatic legacy of Mugabe’s rule in this 2018 Guardian article, claiming that “post-Mugabe, we need a psychological salve”.
This 2016 investigation conducted interviews with leaders in health and mental health in Zimbabwe, finding that most believe in the power of advocacy to improve understanding and appreciation of mental health.
Melanie Abas’s research comparing the prevalence of mental illness in Zimbabwe and London is summarised in this 1997 paper. As explained in Alex Riley’s feature for Mosaic, this project helped dispel the misguided belief that depression was a Westernised disease.
Worldwide impact of the Friendship Bench
This interview with Dixon Chibanda discusses his plans to scale up the Friendship Bench approach.
In January 2018, it was announced that Friendship Benches were coming to New York City. You can read the full press release here.
This video, featuring an interview with Dr Victoria Simms at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, describes how Zimbabwe’s approach to mental health has become a “blueprint” for the whole of Africa.
The Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench campaign, inspired by the Zimbabwe model, is based in Canada. Its website includes a map of all the Friendship Benches, a tool to help find your nearest, and the option to request a bench at a local school.
Prince William and Kate Middleton recently attended the Global Mental Health Summit and took a seat on a Friendship Bench.
More from MosaicNewsletter:
In ‘Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies’, Lyra Mckee explores how mental health in Northern Ireland has suffered in the years after the Troubles.
After his son’s suicide, Steve Mallen saw the world differently. In ‘How to get to a world without suicide’, Simon Usborne writes on how a grieving father began an ambitious Zero Suicide project to change the way we think about mental health.
In every country in the world, male suicides outnumber female. In ‘The male suicides: how social perfectionism kills’, Will Storr investigates what happens in the mind when failure is not an option.