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Zimbabwe’s 'Friendship Bench' a Possible Model for Mental Health Treatment


Health workers in Zimbabwe are helping people with mental health problems through a new program. Experts say the treatment could serve as a model for other countries in Africa.

Doctors estimate that about one quarter of Zimbabweans suffer from depression or anxiety. But there are only 12 psychiatrists in the country of 14 million people. Psychiatrists are doctors who treat mental or emotional problems.

The University of Zimbabwe, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and King’s College London worked together to create a new kind of treatment.

Dr. Victoria Simms works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“We can’t possibly go the route of training psychiatrists and psychologists because it would take 15 years. How are we going to provide treatment?”

So, doctors created a simple but effective program. They placed wooden seats – which they call “Friendship Benches” -- outside several health clinics in the city of Harare. Dr. Simms says people were given the chance to meet on the benches for six sessions with health workers. They call these workers “grandmother health providers.”

Zimbabwe's "Friendship Bench" program
Zimbabwe's "Friendship Bench" program



“So the patient explains what all their problems are and its opening up the mind in the sense of allowing the patient to see that they can do something about their problems.”

The Friendship Bench study involved more than 550 patients. After six months, only 14 percent of the patients in the Friendship Bench group said they were still depressed. That compares to 50 percent of those who did not receive treatment. Those who received the treatment were also five times less likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Dr. Dixon Chibanda is with the University of Zimbabwe. He is one of the founders of the Friendship Bench program. He told VOA that the program has many benefits.

“Not only a mental health sort of package, but a package that actually improved outcomes of things like hypertension, diabetes and, and adherence to medication for people living with HIV.”

Friendship Benches are now placed in 60 clinics in Harare and two other cities.

The Canadian government is helping to pay for the program’s expansion through its Grand Challenges Canada aid program.

Researchers say the program could be a model for mental health efforts in poor areas as well as in wealthier countries.

I’m John Russell.

Correspondent Henry Ridgwell reported this story from London. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted his report for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

depression – n. a serious medical condition in which a person feels very sad, hopeless, and unimportant and often is unable to live in a normal way

anxiety – n. fear or nervousness about what might happen

psychiatrist – n. a doctor who treats mental or emotional disorders; a doctor of psychiatry

psychologist – n. a scientist who specializes in the study and treatment of the mind and behavior; a specialist in psychology

treatment – n. something that deals with a disease, injury, etc., in order to make someone feel better or become healthy again; medical care

patient – n. a person who receives medical care or treatment

benefit – n. a good or helpful result or effect

adhere to – phrasal verb to act in the way that is required by (something, such as a rule, belief, or promise)

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