In A Country Of 16 Million With Only 13 Psychiatrists, ‘Professional Grandmothers’ Are Filling In – And It’s Working

The people of Zimbabwe are desperate for mental health help. Though over 16 million people live in the small, sub-Saharan country, it is home to just 13 psychiatrists.


A lack of professionals available to deal with mental health issues does not make those issues disappear, though. And that’s where the “professional grandmothers” come in.

“Developed from over 20 years of community research, The Friendship Bench Project is a different and smart way to tackle mental health care”

Via The Friendship Bench Project, used with permission

These aren’t just older women who are good listeners. They are lay health workers, trained by the Zimbabwean government specifically to help citizens dealing with mental health issues. Their website states:

“Patients visiting the primary care clinics are being screened with a locally validated tool called the Shona Symptom Questionnaire (SSQ). When scoring above the cut off score, they are being referred to the friendship bench where they will receive individual problem solving therapy from a specifically trained lay health worker.”

Photo credit: Matthew Sandey / Grand Challenges Canada, used with permission

Given the mental health situation in Zimbabwe (and, indeed, in many countries, but particularly in lower-income ones), this project works to connect Zimbabwean citizens with people who can help them.

And the Friendship Bench project appears to be working:

“The strategy seems to be working, according to a new study published in JAMA. The study followed 573 patients in Harare with anxiety or depression for a six-month period. Half of them received the standard treatment: A nurse spoke to them about what they were going through and prescribed medication as needed. The other half went to a Friendship Bench to meet with community members who’d been trained to give both one-on-one and group counseling.

Six months later, half of those who received basic treatment still showed symptoms of depression, whereas only 13 percent of those who participated in Friendship Bench program still had symptoms.

And really, I think we all could use some time on a Friendship Bench every once in a while. Don’t you?

Virginia Manjengwa, one of the “grandmothers” working on this Project. Via The Friendship Bench Project, used with permission

Featured Image via The Friendship Bench Project, used with permission


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