Friendship Bench Helps 100 000 People With Depression and Anxiety

DEMAND for psychotherapeutic services has gone up in Zimbabwe as over 100 000 people suffering from depression and anxiety have accessed the Friendship Bench Services.

By Kudakwashe Pembere

Psychotherapy is a general term for treating mental health problems by talking with a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health provider. Friendship Bench is an evidence-based intervention developed in Zimbabwe to bridge the mental health treatment gap. In Zimbabwe, there are about 15 psychiatrists in government health facilities meaning one psychiatrist tends to about a million people.

To date I can say there are about 100 000 people who have visited the friendship bench,” said African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI) director Professor Dixon Chibanda recently said.

Over thousands of individuals across countries in Africa suffer from mental health illness. This population includes both adults and children, it is estimated that 3% of children aged 0-9 suffer from psychosocial development due to neglect from their mothers and other persons around them.

Research also shows that Africa has just 1.4 mental health workers per 100,000 mental health illness patients compared to the global rate of 9.0 workers to 100,000 patients. More so, in Africa, there are few medical facilities that accommodate and treat patients suffering from mental health illness.

The project is a community development program, which serves as a tool for bridging the gap between people in society through having group interventions. Focusing, more on individuals suffering from various types of mental health disorder such as; anxiety and depression. This program came into the picture through the initiation of Prof Chibanda and his team in 2006.

The program takes a different approach to mental illness treatment, by having outdoor therapy sessions on benches in a secluded area within the compound of clinics in the community. These sessions are facilitated by old women in the community who voluntarily wish to help. These volunteers are mostly of no medical background but are trained by medical practitioners on how to administer counsel to psychological distorted patients. This is also a form of educating and giving relevance to old people living in society.

Since the program creation to date, it has trained over 600 old women in evidence based-talk therapy. This has been done for free in over 70 communities, both rural and urban in Zimbabwe. In 2017 over 30,000 people were involved in the therapy sessions. Results have also shown that since the introduction there has been a decrease in the number of persons suffering from mental health illness. People of humble background also now have unrestricted access to treatment.

Now, the ‘’friendship Bench’’ program has travelled beyond the borders of Zimbabwe. Places like Malawi, Zanzibar, and New York City have adopted the same approach with the hope of decreasing the number of beings suffering from mental health problems just as it has helped in Zimbabwe.

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