Troubled? Sit on a Bench and Talk to a Grandmother

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

How far can a conversation go? Apparently, it can save lives. Take a seat and listen to the story of how Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist in Harare, Zimbabwe, and a group of grandmothers are working together to help people one by one simply through chatting.

via BBC

Throughout his life, Chibanda has used tragedies as inspiration to do all he can to make the world a better place.

Chibanda was inspired to pursue a career in psychology when a fellow classmate of his in medical school committed suicide. According to BBC reporter Rachel Nuwer, Chibanda said “He was a very cheerful chap – no one expected this guy to harm himself and end his life. But apparently he was depressed, and none of us picked up on it.”

After this experience, Chibanda decided he wanted to dedicate his life to helping others with mental health issues and became a psychiatrist.

Years later, Chibanda received a call late one night from the emergency room regarding one of his patients, Erica. Erica was a 26-year-old woman who had been treated by Chibanda a few months before this, and the doctor asked Chibanda to help ensure that Erica would not attempt suicide again.

Since the hospital Erica was being treated in was over 100 miles away from Chibanda, the psychiatrist talked with Erica’s mother over the phone and set up a plan for them to meet and reconsider Erica’s treatment.

After waiting anxiously for three weeks and still hearing nothing back from Erica or her mother, Chibanda finally called to find out that it was too late. Erica had already killed herself three days before.

According Rachel Nuwer, Chibanda immediately asked Erica’s mother, “Why didn’t you come to Harare? We had agreed that as soon as she’s released, you will come to me!”

Erica’s mother explained, “We didn’t have the $15 bus fare to come to Harare.”

This case troubled Chibanda for months afterwards. The psychiatrists’ eyes were opened to a problem that prevents lots of people all over the world from receiving the care they need.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, and about 800,000 suicides per year are caused by depression. Although it is unknown exactly how many people in Zimbabwe suffer from depression, Chibanda told Rachel Nuwer that while running his campaign, he discovered “extremely high” rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues among Zimbabweans. “In Zimbabwe, we like to say that we have four generations of psychological trauma,” he said in reference to the Rhodesian Bush War, the Matabeleland massacre, and other tragedies that traumatized the Zimbabweans. Additionally, the government movement to forcibly clear the slums called Operation Murambatsvina, or “remove the filth,” left about 700,000 people in Zimbabwe homeless and contributed to mental health problems of many people affected.

There is often not enough help accessible to everyone who suffers from depression. For one thing, expenses often pile too high for people to afford professional help. Additionally, resources are often limited. In Zimbabwe, there are only 12 psychiatrists. With a population of 16 million people, the ratio of psychiatrists and psychologists to citizens is 1 for every 1.5 million. Sometimes, professional help is completely nonexistent, even if people could pay. Chibanda pointed out to Rachel Nuwer that “Some countries don’t even have a single psychiatrist.”

Chibanda decided to work on developing a way for normal citizens to have easy and affordable access to mental health care. The only problem was that his supervisors were unable to provide him with any resources other than access to outside areas and 14 volunteer grandmothers with little education and no training in mental health counseling.

With this, Chibanda came up with the idea for a Friendship Bench.

The Friendship Bench is a safe space where anyone can sit and talk out their problems with a grandmother who is trained to help them come to a solution via BBC.

Chibanda admitted to Rachel Nuwer that at first, he “was sceptical about using old women.” However, after working with the grandmothers, the idea for a Friendship Bench started to become a reality. Chibanda trained the old women to deal with mental health and tried to teach them to incorporate Western medical terminology, such as “depression” and “suicidal ideation.” In the end, though, the grandmothers convinced Chibanda to continue to use culturally-rooted concepts and words that Zimbabweans could identify with. The grandmothers also found a way to incorporate the core Shona concepts of opening up the mind and strengthening and uplifting the spirit.

The training package itself is rooted in evidence-based therapy, but it’s also equally rooted in indigenous concepts… it’s really managed to bring together these different pieces using local knowledge and wisdom.”

— Chibanda

Over time, the Friendship Bench became a safe space. People can sit and talk to a grandmother for as long as it takes for them to feel better. People can essentially have a free therapy session with the grandmothers, who are trained to give professional advice for different mental health issues. And not only are the benches free, but they can also be found all over in parks and neighborhoods.

“A lot of people think I’m a genius for thinking of this, but it’s not true,” he told Rachel Nuwer. “I just had to work with what was there.”

via BBC

Not only is it beneficial for the citizens who stop to talk about their problems, but it is also advantageous for the grandmothers. Chibanda told Rachel Nuwer that “We’re exploring why this is, but what seems to be emerging is this concept of altruism, in which the grandmothers really feel that they get something out of actually making a difference in the lives of others. It gives them a lot of great benefits, too.”

Grandmother Rudo Chinhoyi (in the center with a blue t-shirt) with her 3 children, 9 grandchildren, and 8 great-grandchildren via BBC.

Grandmother Rudo Chinhoyi has been part of the Friendship Bench from the start and has helped more people than she can count. No matter who walks up to her, she remains open to helping them. She told Rachel Nuwer that she introduces herself right away and asks them, “What is your problem? Tell me everything, and let me help you with my words.” She then talks with the person until he or she comes up with a solution on their own. Even after they leave, Chinhoyi continues to check up on them every few days to make sure they are still doing okay.

“I joined this programme because I wanted to help people in the community,” she told Rachel Nuwer. “It was too much – the depressed people. There were so many of them and I wanted to reduce the numbers. I’ve always been like that, wanting to help others. I value human beings so much.”

Although the grandmothers listen to the various problems of dozens of people every day, they never become discouraged or burnt out. Chibanda said, “What we see in them is this amazing resilience in the face of adversity.”

Imagine if we could create a global network of grandmothers in every major city in the world.”

— Chibanda

New York City has its own bright orange Friendship Benches via Facebook

The Friendship Benches in Zimbabwe have worked as a blueprint for other countries to start their own programs.

Other countries who have implemented the Friendship Bench have discovered that it’s not just grandmothers who are capable of giving counseling. Both elderly women and men give counselling from the benches in Malawi. In Zanzibar, younger men and women are used. In New York City, anyone can become a counselor, regardless of their age, race, or gender. Takeesha White, the executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Communications at the NYC Department of Health’s Center for Health Equity, told BBC reporter Rachel Nuwer, “We cover all the bases. New York City’s population is very broad.”

Chibanda hopes that Friendship Benches will eventually be used all over the world so that everyone feels they have an outlet available.