Innovation That Matters

One of the colourful benches used for counselling by the Canada Friendship Bench programme | Photo source The Friendship Bench

Grandmothers tackle depression with the aid of a park bench

Health & Wellbeing

Over 400 grandmothers have been trained to deliver talk therapy, which they provide for free in communities across Zimbabwe

Spotted: Accessing mental health treatment can be difficult at the best of times. But in many countries, there are few mental health services to draw on, and those that do exist may be expensive and hard to reach. A Zimbabwean initiative called The Friendship Bench is working to change this with a program that draws on the expertise of grandmothers.

Since 2006, Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist in Harare, Zimbabwe and his team, have trained more than 400 grandmothers to deliver talk therapy, which they provide for free in communities across Zimbabwe, often on colourful benches set up for the purpose. The programme has since been expanded to many countries. 

The grandmothers were originally trained to use the medical terminology of psychiatry, but the women insisted that instead, they should “communicate through culturally rooted concepts that people can identify with,”  such as training in, “Shona concepts of opening up the mind, and uplifting and strengthening the spirit.”

In 2016, Chibanda’s team published the results of a study into the programme’s efficacy in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers demonstrated that the programme worked to reduce symptoms of depression. More trials are underway, and the programme has also expanded to several countries, including the US, using both senior citizen counsellors and younger people. “We cover all the bases,” says Takeesha White, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Communications at the NYC Department of Health’s Center for Health Equity: “New York City’s population is very broad.”

There is growing recognition that access to mental health treatment is just as important as access to other types of medical treatment. A growing number of initiatives and businesses are working to tackle the gap in public thinking. At Springwise, we have seen steady growth in innovations in this area, such as an app that offers free counselling and a wearable headset that aims to treat depression.

Written By: Lisa Magloff

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