Grandmothers’ Friendship Bench Initiative in Zimbabwe Spurs Global Mental Health Movement



In Zimbabwe, a groundbreaking initiative known as the Friendship Bench, spearheaded by psychiatrist Dr. Dixon Chibanda, is revolutionizing mental health care by addressing the critical shortage of psychiatric services.

With fewer than 20 psychiatrists for a population of 15 million, Zimbabwe grapples with widespread mental health issues stemming from historical traumas, economic challenges, and ailing healthcare systems.

The Genesis of the Friendship Bench

The Friendship Bench emerged in 2006 as a response to the dire need for psychosocial support in the face of limited resources and escalating mental health concerns.

Dr. Chibanda, motivated by the tragic suicide of a patient unable to afford bus fare for a follow-up session, collaborated with the Ministry of Health and the University of Zimbabwe to train lay health workers, affectionately known as “grandmothers,” in evidence-based problem-solving therapy.

Grandmothers as Mental Health Allies

The unique choice of grandmothers as counselors is strategic, tapping into their role as community custodians with deep cultural roots. These grandmothers, averaging 50 years old, receive training to enhance their listening skills, empathy, and abilities to guide individuals toward finding solutions to their mental health challenges. The initiative emphasizes the importance of human connection and community support.

Bridging Gaps in Mental Health Services

With Zimbabwe grappling with a mental health crisis exacerbated by socioeconomic hardships, the Friendship Bench has become a vital bridge, offering support to those who cannot afford traditional psychiatric services.

The grandmothers, stationed on purpose-built benches, provide counseling that focuses on discussing potential solutions rather than offering cash handouts. The success of this model led to a replication of the Friendship Bench in several African countries, including Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya, and Botswana.

From Local Success to Global Recognition

The Friendship Bench’s impact extends beyond the African continent. It has proven adaptable even in resource-rich countries, challenging preconceptions about the direction of innovation. I

n a surprising turn, HelpAge USA, an international nonprofit, is piloting the Friendship Bench in Washington, DC, recognizing the universal need for human connection and mental health support.

WHO Endorsement and Global Replication

The World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed the Friendship Bench model, leading to its replication in various countries. The initiative was showcased during the 2022 World Cup, with 32 benches representing participating nations.

Despite the global recognition, Dr. Chibanda emphasizes the importance of fidelity and raises concerns about unauthorized replications and charging for services.

Philanthropic Support and Growth

The Friendship Bench has garnered significant philanthropic support, with MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donating $2 million in 2022. Additionally, the initiative received the McNulty Foundation and Aspen Institute’s John P McNulty Prize in 2023.

These funds have propelled the Friendship Bench’s annual budget from $30,000 to $6 million over the past five years, facilitating substantial growth.

Expanding Services and Community Impact

With the increased funding, the Friendship Bench has evolved from a small-scale initiative to a transformative force, employing over 50 full-time staff and engaging around 3,000 counselors.

Grandmothers, once unpaid volunteers, now receive a $25 monthly allowance, stationary, bicycles, and smartphones to facilitate counseling through platforms like WhatsApp, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Chibanda’s Vision for the Future

Dr. Chibanda envisions the Friendship Bench as an integral part of Zimbabwe’s healthcare system. He is collaborating with the Health Ministry to integrate the initiative into government programs, ensuring sustainability and widespread accessibility.

Plans for a therapeutic village, supported by generous donations, aim to provide additional holistic healing opportunities.

Global Recognition and Speaking Engagements

Dr. Chibanda’s innovative approach has earned him global recognition, with speaking engagements at prestigious events like the World Economic Forum in Davos and the UN General Assembly. Despite his growing stature, he remains committed to his work, continuing to practice, teach, and lead the Friendship Bench initiative.

The Friendship Bench, born out of a local need, has become a beacon of hope for those grappling with mental health challenges globally.

With its inclusive and community-centric model, this initiative led by counselor-grandmothers has not only alleviated mental health struggles but also sparked a global movement that transcends cultural and economic boundaries.

As it continues to evolve, the Friendship Bench stands as a testament to the power of grassroots initiatives in addressing complex societal issues.


— Share —

— About the Author —

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Up Next

Controversy Surrounds Proposed “Betting on Our Future Act” Targeting Mobile Sports Betting Ads

Congressman Paul D. Tonko (D-NY) has ignited debate with the introduction of the “Betting on Our Future Act,” a bill aimed at banning online and electronic advertising of sports gambling in the United States. Tonko’s proposed legislation unveiled just before the Super Bowl, is motivated by concerns for the younger demographic.

In his statement introducing the bill, Tonko emphasized the potential risks posed by such advertisements, particularly to adolescents and young adults who may be unaware of the dangers associated with gambling.

Drawing parallels to the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, which prohibited tobacco advertising, Tonko underscores the need to regulate the promotion

Up Next

Survey On Mental Health Struggles Reveals That Students Opt-Out of College Due To Anxiety And Depression

As high school juniors and seniors contemplate their futures, the decision to pursue higher education weighs heavily on many. However, for a significant portion of students, concerns about mental well-being are influencing their choices, leading them to either delay college enrollment or forego it altogether.

A recent study conducted by EAB, formerly known as the Education Advisory Board, has brought to light a concerning statistic: nearly one-third of the nearly 6,500 students surveyed cited mental health concerns as the primary reason for opting out of college.

This trend is particularly pronounced among underrepresented groups, with mental well-being issues disproportionately affecting stu

Up Next

Funding Shortage Threatens Vital Mental Wellness Program for Farmers

In a bid to support the mental health of Utah’s agricultural community, the Ag Stress Assistance Program (ASAP) was launched in March 2023.

Spearheaded by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) and Utah State University (USU) Extension Ag Wellness, the program provided behavioral healthcare vouchers to farmers and ranchers, offering crucial support during challenging times.

However, recent funding shortages have cast a shadow over the mental wellness program for farmers, raising concerns about the well-being of those it serves.

Up Next

New York City Sues Social Media Giants for Allegedly Exacerbating Youth Mental Health Crisis

In a bold move, New York City has launched a lawsuit against several major social media companies, including Meta, Google, Snap, and TikTok, accusing them of exacerbating a nationwide youth mental health crisis.

The lawsuit, filed after designating social media as a “public health hazard” in late January, targets TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, alleging that they are “fueling” the crisis by endangering children’s mental health, promoting addiction, and encouraging unsafe behavior.

The Mayor Eric Adams administration has leveled three counts against these companies in the lawsuit: public nu

Up Next

Understanding “Popcorn Brain”: How Social Media Impacts Attention Span and Mental Health

In an age dominated by digital media, the term “popcorn brain” is gaining traction to describe the phenomenon of rapidly shifting attention spans. Coined by University of Washington researcher David Levy in 2011, this concept refers to the tendency of individuals to quickly jump from one task or thought to another, akin to popping corn kernels.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Daniel Glazer, “popcorn brain” stems from the constant bombardment of digital stimuli, particularly through social media platforms.

As people scroll through endless feeds of new posts, alerts, engagements, and advertisements, they experience a small dopamine release that reinforces this behavior, leading to a cyc

Up Next

Anti-Psychotic Drug Clozapine Under Scrutiny: Medicines Watchdog Initiates Review

In a recent development, the use of the anti-psychotic drug clozapine is under scrutiny after reports of its association with hundreds of deaths annually. The Times investigation has shed light on lapses in monitoring its usage, prompting the medicines watchdog to initiate a review.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has echoed concerns, calling for a reassessment of clozapine’s prescription practices, asserting that it may have contributed to preventable deaths.

Often considered a last resort in treating conditions like paranoid schizophrenia and psychosis in Parkinson’s disease, clozapine is prescribed to approximately 37,000 individuals in the UK.

Up Next

Rising Job Anxiety Grips Big Tech Industry Amid Changing Workplace Dynamics

In recent years, the once-cushy atmosphere of the Big Tech industry has undergone a significant transformation, with job anxiety becoming increasingly prevalent among workers. What was once characterized by free lunches, moonshot projects, and job security now faces a new reality marked by layoffs, increased competition, and a focus on efficiency.

Dubbed the “Zero Interest Rate Phenomenon” (ZIRP), this shift reflects a changed workplace landscape where companies prioritize reducing layers and streamlining operations. Job cuts once considered temporary measures, have now become a permanent fixture, leading to a sense of uncertainty and diminished job satisfaction among employees.

Despite these challenges, Big Tech companies continue to thrive financially, with giants like Mic