Sign In This Curious Life

Sign in

The healing wisdom of grandmothers: transforming mental health care

October 2023 – George Lee

Theme: Happiness

The healing wisdom of grandmothers:
transforming mental health care

In a world where depression affects a staggering 300 million people, and someone tragically takes their own life every 40 seconds due to unhappiness, the need for accessible mental health care is more pressing than ever. This stark reality has prompted innovative solutions to address the global mental health crisis. Unfortunately, not everyone is fortunate enough to have immediate access to therapists or counsellors. How do we deal with this? Well, not all innovation must be high-tech. 

An older woman and younger woman on a bench

Dr. Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist in Zimbabwe, found himself facing a challenge in his country, where he was one of only 12 psychiatrists serving a population of over 16 million people. The shortage of mental health professionals in Zimbabwe was even more extreme than in many other parts of the world. This scarcity had severe consequences, as Dr. Chibanda tragically lost a patient—a young woman with a promising future—to suicide. She couldn’t access mental health care in her village and couldn’t afford the $15 bus fare to travel 160 miles to see him. 

This heartbreaking incident spurred Dr. Chibanda to dedicate his career to a profound question: How could he help those in desperate need of mental health care but who were hindered by financial, geographic, or cultural barriers? His quest led him to a groundbreaking solution: grandmothers. 

Yes, grandmothers—the custodians of local culture and wisdom, the pillars of communities. Dr. Chibanda recognised the immense potential within this group of experienced, empathetic, and respected caregivers. He harnessed their power to create the Friendship Bench program, a revolutionary initiative that would redefine mental health care in Zimbabwe and beyond. 

Some of the grandmothers gathered together

The core concept behind the Friendship Bench program is simple yet profound: train grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy. These grandmothers become the front-line mental health caregivers in their communities, providing much-needed emotional support and counselling to those in need. They serve as a beacon of hope, transforming parks and benches into safe spaces for open discussions about mental well-being. 

But the impact of this program extends far beyond Zimbabwe’s borders. The spirit of community-based mental health care has captured hearts worldwide. Friendship Bench Friends emerged as an initiative dedicated to creating mindful, resilient, and empowered communities, even in places lacking necessary resources or formal partnerships. The goal is to break down mental health barriers, challenge stigma, and promote health-seeking behaviors. 

The Friendship Bench program not only addresses mental health issues but also underscores the power of intergenerational connections. It recognises that empowering our elders is key to fostering a sense of connection and community. Grandmothers, with their vast experience and compassion, have become the unlikely heroes of mental health care, proving that, indeed, it starts with us, here, and now. And it works. 

“If we can't measure what we're doing then we really don't know if it's working," Dixon Chibanda

As of early 2023, the Friendship Bench program boasts impressive achievements. It has trained 2000 community health workers, served over 280,000 clients, and established 400 active support groups in six countries. The program’s results are equally astonishing, with a 78% reduction in depression and suicide thoughts among participants and a remarkable 60% improvement in the quality of life. 

In a world striving to address the silent crisis of diminishing mental health, Dr. Chibanda’s innovative approach and the Friendship Bench program offer a shining beacon of hope. It reminds us that solutions to global challenges often lie within our communities and the wisdom of those who have lived through life’s ups and downs. Grandmothers, with their vast experience and compassion, have become the unlikely heroes of mental health care, proving that, indeed, it starts with us, here, and now. 

An older woman and a young girl on the friendship bench

Similar initiatives inspired by the grandmothers’ success have been initiated in diverse places, spanning from Kenya to Vietnam. This innovative program has become a model for pilot initiatives in various neighborhoods within New York City, such as the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn. There is even one coming to where I live in Lewes, in East Sussex in the UK. As Sue Dunckley Project Officer at the Healthy Ageing Team, at Easy Sussex County Council shared with us: 

 “ We are all aware of the issue of loneliness and social isolation in our communities and a friendship bench, located in a popular location in Lewes, will provide opportunities for chatting, conversations and friendliness which can all help to improve someone’s day. Research has shown that even very brief interactions can help people feel happier and more connected to their local communities.” 

 The true power of the program goes beyond its easily replicable setup or the expertise of its providers. It lies in its capacity to empower ordinary individuals to assume a vital role in safeguarding the psychological well-being of their communities. This is a true innovation! 

More Information

More about the Friendship Bench

You can find out more about the Friendship Bench at their website website.

You can donate to the project on theirJustGiving page.