How a wooden bench is starting a revolution in mental health

On the Friendship Bench a form of problem-solving therapy aims at the potential triggers of distress and patients are guided toward their own solutions.

Story highlights

  • An estimated 322 million people live with depression, the majority in non-Western nations
  • The Friendship Bench project offers basic psychological therapy from grandmothers

Dixon Chibanda spent more time with Erica than most of his other patients. It wasn't that her problems were more serious than others' -- she was just one of thousands of women in their mid-20s with depression in Zimbabwe. It was because she had travelled over 160 miles to meet him.

At the time, in 2004, Chibanda was one of only two psychiatrists working in public healthcare in the whole of Zimbabwe, a country of over 12.5 million people. Both were based in Harare, the capital city. Erica, on the other hand, lived in a remote village nestled in the highlands of eastern Zimbabwe, next to the border with Mozambique.
Erica had passed her exams at school but was unable to find a job. Her family, she thought, wanted her only to find a husband. To them, the role of a woman was to be a wife and a mother. She wondered what her bride price might be. A cow? A few goats? As it turned out, the man she hoped to marry chose another woman. Erica felt totally worthless.
    Erica and Chibanda met every month for a year or so, sitting opposite one another in a small office at the hospital. Chibanda prescribed Erica an old-fashioned antidepressant called amitriptyline, hoping that after a month or so, she might be better able to cope with the difficulties back home in the highlands.
    You can overcome some life events, no matter how serious, when they come one at a time or in a small number. But when combined, they can snowball and become something altogether more dangerous.
    For Erica, it was lethal. She took her own life in 2005.