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Friendship Bench with Dr Dixon Chibanda

In the first session of our Global Health Lecture Series, Dr Dixon Chibanda tackled the topical issue of Mental Health. Alleviating the psychological pressures of modern living, particularly in these trying times, often seems an uphill battle. Enter Zimbabwe’s Friendship Benches - a community-based approach that bridges the Mental Health treatment gap by enlisting the help of trained volunteers. Where a psychologist’s examination room is hard to come by, patients can instead seek out volunteer ‘grandmothers’ in local parks. Their task is not so much to medicate and diagnose, but to listen and empathise. Paradoxically, this approach has been tremendously effective in terms of clinical outcomes, as several studies have shown. The Friendship Benches’ have made inspiring progress since their inception. Volunteers have organically expanded their reach from sessions at the Benches to informal interactions in the community. The Benches have achieved wide acclaim, drawing new beneficiaries from all round on top of the initial referral pathways.

Dr Chibanda provided illuminating insights on the unique features driving this model. The use of locally-defined terms rather than medical labels, and the underlying focus on empathy over simply reaching a diagnosis are two key factors behind its success. These lessons provide significant food for thought on how we approach Mental Health. The mind holds many unsolved mysteries even for the most sophisticated medical and pharmaceutical techniques. And it may be helpful - or indeed necessary - for us to consider how we can incorporate social support frameworks and interpersonal relations into Mental Health treatment.

The talk ended on a poignant note - Dr Chibanda highlighted the sheer scale of Mental Health issues not just in Zimbabwe but worldwide. It may well be impossible to train enough medical specialists to allow every single patient timely access to clinical care. How, then, may we tap on other resources to ensure Mental Health needs receive the attention they deserve?

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