A Zimbabwean professor of psychiatry, Dixon Chibanda, has devised a novel way to provide desperately needed mental health therapy to his poorer compatriots: a park bench where people sit and receive free therapy from lay health workers, called mbuya (grandmothers).
Their therapy model is now being exported to the soccer World Cup in Qatar, where 32 benches, each representing a team competing in the FIFA tournament, will be set up to highlight global mental health.
The Chibanda Friendship Bank has proven popular and has offered much-needed accessible therapy. Decades of deepening poverty have taken a mental toll on many Zimbabweans, placing a burden on underfunded and understaffed psychiatric health services.
The friendship bank has helped overcome a shortage of professional health workers in Zimbabwe, which has just 14 psychiatrists, 150 clinical psychologists and fewer than 500 psychiatric nurses serving a population of 16 million people.
“We need these alternative innovations to bridge the gap and my idea is to use grandmothers to provide therapy,” Chibanda said, adding that the banks are spaces “to share stories and through storytelling we can all heal.”
Accolades from the World Cup and the World Health Organization
The World Cup project is associated with the World Health Organization (WHO), whose chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hailed the initiative as “a simple but powerful vehicle to promote mental health.”
It’s “a reminder of how the simple act of sitting down to talk can make a big difference in mental health,” he said.
Other countries that have adopted the friendship bank model include Jordan, Kenya, Malawi, Zanzibar and the United States, where 60,000 people in the Bronx and Harlem areas have accessed the therapy.
In Zimbabwe, about 70% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Chibanda’s idea for friendship banks germinated after a patient he was treating at a government hospital took her own life.
“She didn’t have a ZW$15 bus ticket to go to the hospital for depression treatment,” he said.
“That was the initial trigger that instantly made me realize that mental health needed to be brought from hospitals to communities.”
Shery Ziwakayi has offered therapy from a garden bench in the Zimbabwean capital Harare for the past six years, seeing an average of three clients a day.
“By talking to us, many have recovered and are back to leading normal lives,” said Ziwakayi, who received training in basic counseling skills, mental health literacy and problem-solving therapy.
The grandmothers receive a stipend for their services and the operation is financed by the Chibanda NGO, Banco de la Amistad.
His patients come from all walks of life: young, old, experiencing stress or dealing with drug addiction. Some are unemployed or have economic problems, others are victims of gender violence.
On a white sheet hooked to a handheld blue board, he asks customers if they are scared of trivial things, feel exhausted or have felt like taking their own lives, among many other questions.
Choice Jiya, 43, said she owes her life to the service offered on the bench, having considered committing suicide when her husband lost his job shortly after she gave birth to their twins in 2005.
Now he runs a small company that makes perfumes and soaps.
From just 14 grandmothers in Mbare, Harare’s oldest and poorest municipality, in early 2006, there are now almost 1,000 banks and more than 1,500 grandmothers in different locations.
They have helped 160,000 people in the last two years alone.
The consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have caused an increase in mental health problems and the WHO estimates that more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression.
Its most recent report “paints a very bleak picture,” showing that six of the 10 countries with the highest suicide rates in the world are in Africa, Chibanda said.
For the director of Harare Health Services, Prosper Chonzi, the banks are a “masterstroke”.
“The demand for mental health services is high due to the economic situation. This is one of the best interventions. It has made a huge difference in terms of preventing suicides,” she said. — AFP