A bench and a grandmother’s ear: Zimbabwe’s novel mental health therapy spreads overseas

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — After her son, the light of her life and sole breadwinner, was arrested last year, Tambudzai Tembo was in crisis. In Zimbabwe, where mental health services are scarce, her chances of getting professional help were slim to none. She contemplated suicide.

“I didn’t want to live anymore. People who saw me would think everything was fine. But inside, my head was spinning,” the 57-year-old said. “I was alone.”

A wooden bench and a caring grandmother saved her.

Older people are at the centre of an indigenous form of mental health therapy in Zimbabwe that is now being adopted in places like the United States.

The method involves setting up benches in quiet, discreet corners of community clinics and some churches, poor neighborhoods and a university. An older woman with basic training in problem-solving therapy sits there patiently, ready to listen and engage in face-to-face conversation.

The therapy is inspired by traditional Zimbabwean practice, where grandmothers were the go-to people for wisdom in difficult times. This practice had been abandoned with urbanisation, the disintegration of extended, close-knit families and modern technology. Now it is proving its worth again as mental health needs increase.

“Grandmothers are the guardians of local culture and wisdom. They are rooted in their communities,” said Dixon Chibanda, a professor of psychiatry and founder of the initiative. “They don’t go away, and they also have an amazing ability to use what we call ‘expressed empathy’ … to make people feel respected and understood.”

Last year, Chibanda was named the winner of a $150,000 prize from the U.S.-based McNulty Foundation for revolutionizing mental health care. Chibanda said the concept has taken hold in parts of Vietnam, Botswana, Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania and is in “early formative work” in London.

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In New York, the city’s new mental health plan, launched last year, says it is “taking inspiration” from what it calls the Friendship Bench to help address risk factors like social isolation. The orange benches are now in areas like Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

In Washington, HelpAge USA is testing the concept as part of its DC Grandparents for Mental Health initiative, which began in 2022 as a COVID-19 support group for people aged 60 and older.

So far, 20 grandmothers determined to “end the stigma around mental health and make it acceptable to talk about feelings” have been trained by a team from Friendship Bench Zimbabwe to listen, empathize and empower others to solve their problems, said Cindy Cox-Roman, president and CEO of HelpAge USA.

The benches will be installed in places of worship, schools and wellness centers in low-income Washington communities with people who “have been historically marginalized and are more likely to experience mental health issues,” he said.

Cox-Roman cited fear and mistrust of the medical system, lack of social support and stigma as some of the factors limiting access to treatment.

“People are hurting and a grandmother can always make you feel better,” she said.

“We have so much wisdom in our older population and open arms. I reject ageism. Sometimes age brings with it wisdom that you don’t learn until you get older,” said one of the grandmothers, Barbara Allen, 81, in a promotional video.

More than one in five American adults lives with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

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“The mental health crisis is real. The real crisis after the pandemic is that many doctors have left the workforce,” said Dr. Jehan El-Mayoumi, who works as an expert for HelpAge USA and is founding director of Georgetown University’s Rodham Institute for Health Equity. She has fought to get psychiatrists for acutely suicidal patients.

El-Mayoumi said the Zimbabwean concept offers people “someone to trust, to open their heart to, to tell their deepest secrets (and) that requires trust, so that’s the wonderful thing about the Friendship Bank.”

The idea was born out of tragedy. Chibanda was a young psychiatrist, one of just over ten in Zimbabwe in 2005. One of his patients desperately wanted to see him, but couldn’t afford the $15 bus fare. Chibanda later learned that she had committed suicide.

“I realized that I needed to have a stronger presence in the community,” Chibanda said. “I realized that actually one of the most valuable resources are these grandmothers, the guardians of the local culture.”

She recruited 14 grandmothers from the neighbourhood near the hospital where she worked in the capital, Harare, and trained them. In Zimbabwe, they receive $25 a month to help with transport and telephone bills.

The network, which now works in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, has grown to include more than 2,000 grandmothers across the country. According to the network, by 2023 more than 200,000 Zimbabweans will have sat on a bench to receive therapy from a trained grandmother.

Siridzayi Dzukwa, the grandmother who persuaded Tembo not to commit suicide, recently made a follow-up visit to his home. Using a written questionnaire, she checked on Tembo’s progress. She listened as Tembo told how he had found a new lease on life and now sells vegetables to make ends meet.

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Dzukwa has become a recognizable figure in the area. People stop to say hello and thank her for her help. Some ask her to visit their home or write down her phone number.

“People are no longer ashamed or afraid to openly stop us on the street and ask us to talk,” she said. “Mental health is no longer something to be ashamed of.”


The Associated Press receives financial support for global health and development coverage in Africa from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust. AP is solely responsible for all content. Rules To work with philanthropic organizations, a list of funders and coverage areas funded in AP.org.


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