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How grandmas around the world are helping the depression epidemic

FRIENDSHIP BENCH PROJECT
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A psychiatrist came up with a simple solution for treating depression -- and it's worked.

When Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist from Zimbabwe, heard a 26-year-old client of his had committed suicide when she couldn’t afford the $15 bus fare to his office, he was “haunted.” With a huge lack of medical professionals and facilities to help those suffering from depression, Chibanda felt desperate to try and find a solution for those in need.

The word for depression in Chibanda’s country is “kufungisisa,” meaning “thinking too much.” A phenomenon that seems to be increasing on a global scale — in fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that in 2016, 6.7 percent of U.S. adults had experienced one bout of major depression in their lives, equating to a staggering 16.2 million adults. In Zimbabwe itself, Chibanda is only one of 12 practicing psychiatrists for a population of 16 million, creating a huge scarcity of professional help.

Looking to his supervisors for help, Chibanda was told there were no resources available, just 14 grandmothers and outdoor space. The psychiatrist’s reaction was to think outside the box. He decided to enlist these seniors in the Friendship Bench program. It’s simple: Those in need can come sit on the bench and receive a sympathetic ear. Although his colleagues thought the idea was “nonsense,” Chibanda pressed ahead with his plans.

By training grandmothers in talk therapy — a method that has been empirically screened and used in many countries, including the U.S. —  Chibanda gave them tools to help those feeling depressed. In true grandma style, the training had to be adapted to incorporate their pearls of wisdom. These experienced ladies pointed out to the doctor that they needed to drop the medical jargon and speak in plain terms, appealing to their culture and their points of reference.

“I think that’s largely one of the reasons it’s been successful, because it’s really managed to bring together these different pieces using local knowledge and wisdom,” explained Chibanda to the BBC.

One grandmother named Chinhoyi demonstrated her method of encouraging patients to talk through their issues in order to come up with their own solution. The 72-year-old has been actively helping people for 10 years on a daily basis. She applies common sense, and, like lots of the grandmothers, speaks from her own experience. She offers continued support so the person doesn’t feel abandoned, even if they think they’re ready. Chibanda acknowledges these ladies’ remarkable abilities: “What we see in them is this amazing resilience in the face of adversity.” And importantly, the grandmothers don’t seem to be too heavily impacted by the stories they hear.

Chibanda has trained 400 seniors since 2006 and the results have been impressive. After much research, the program has been rolled out in several countries. In just one year in New York, where the benches are orange, over 30,000 people were helped through a similar program. While there are permanent benches available, there are also teams of volunteers present in times of local tragedies. Interestingly, when Chibanda traveled to New York he found that although his country is oceans away the problems we all struggle with are similar.

The Friendship Bench Program harks back to times gone by when people sat and talked though their problems with neighbors over a cup of tea or coffee. As our lives become increasingly hectic, the granny bench reminds us that it really is good to talk things out with others. And Chibanda himself has taught us all that we really can rise to the challenge when we put on our thinking caps.

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