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Grandmothers Help Treat Depression

As anxiety escalates, Zimbabwe shows us a way forward

Dixon Chibanda is a psychiatrist in Zimbabwe, one of only 12 such doctors for a population of more than 14 million people. Mental health problems in that destitute country are rampant, and a significant percentage of them can be summed up in one word: kufungisisa. In Shona, Zimbabwe’s official language, the word covers brooding, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, and its literal meaning is “thinking too much.” 

When a patient of Dr. Chibanda’s committed suicide in 2005 – lacking $15, her mother said later, for bus fare to travel to Chibanda’s clinic – the doctor was motivated to find a solution to the critical dearth of mental health workers. With little funding available, the city health department offered him a group of grandmothers and he came up with a creative solution.

Nearly every village already has these respected elderly women who, despite minimal education, are time-tested, life-wise and – most importantly – often excellent listeners. Why not tap into this resource to help the many people suffering from kufungisisa?

With funding from a non-profit called Grand Challenges Canada, Chibanda began the Friendship Bench program. The concept is simple: build benches, train elderly women in talk therapy, and invite troubled villagers to come. Each grandmother receives several weeks of training and then offers six sessions per client. Clients are “encouraged to open their minds to identify their problems, choose one to work on, identify a feasible solution, and agree on an action plan” with the guidance of the grandmothers. 

Passing the Test

Has the Friendship Bench approach been effective? 

Dr. Chibanda “published the results of a randomized control trial,” Rachel Nuwer wrote in a BBC article, that evaluated the project’s efficacy. “The researchers split 600 people with symptoms of depression into two groups. They found that after six months, the group that had seen the grandmothers had significantly lower symptoms of depression compared to the group that underwent conventional treatment.” 

“Our results show that six months after receiving treatment,” Dr. Chibanda reported in his TED talk, “people were still symptom-free – no depression, suicidal ideation completely reduced. In fact, a clinical trial showed that grandmothers were more effective at treating depression than doctors.” 

Other countries are adopting Zimbabwe’s innovative program for themselves, and not only in Africa. New York City has adapted the concept and it’s also been modified for use in Canadian schools.

What about COVID-19?

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Friendship Bench program has been needed more than ever. Under the Zimbabwe lockdown, as in many countries, women have struggled with partner abuse, isolation and loss of income. 

Chibanda realized, however, that his elderly grandmothers were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus and encouraged them to switch to phone conversations. “If we can’t have the physical Friendship Bench,” he told BBC, “at least we want to make it available by phone.”

When the pandemic is over, Chibanda added, the digital approach will continue to prove useful particularly when dealing with young people, who like that method. “When we go back to normal, they will have the option of having their first session on the bench and subsequent sessions by phone.”

Grandmothers in the Church

What about the Body of Christ? Do believers suffer from kufungisisa? Do our congregations deal with depression, and has COVID-19 intensified anxieties? Yes, almost certainly. Pastors are overloaded with counseling requests, and sometimes we just don’t know who to ask for help. 

One effective solution might be the grandmothers among us. Not just literal grandmas but all of the older, wise and willing women in our congregations. These women have a lot to offer. They’ve walked with the Lord a long time and weathered quite a few storms already; COVID-19 is not their first crisis. 

Paul wrote to Titus, overseer of the church at Crete, charging him to encourage the older women “to give good counsel and be teachers of what is right and noble, so that they will wisely train the young women to be sane and sober of mind and to love their husbands and their children” (Titus 2:3-4 AMP).

What if a church – your church? – were to identify, recruit and equip grandmothers for Friendship Benches? Could you adapt the idea to fit your community in some way? 

Those benches – or phones – could be places of ministry for priceless grandmothers. Altars on which hearts open up to the healing work of the Holy Spirit. Sites of emotional and spiritual victories for brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Yes, in each congregation’s crises of kufungisisa, there just might be room for the wise grandmothers to lend a listening ear. Bench-mentoring of immeasurable benefit to your local church and beyond.

How to start

If the Holy Spirit is prompting you, here’s how you can start a Friendship Bench program in your church or ministry. 

  • Gather a team to pray about the idea. If all sense the Spirit’s leading, prayerfully adapt this concept to your own situation. 
  • Appoint leaders and establish a framework. Will it be geared to younger women or open to anyone? Who will oversee the program? How and when will it take place? To whom will the grandmothers report? Could a local healthcare worker provide basic mental health training, including when and where to refer a client needing more comprehensive help? How will it be temporarily adapted to any pandemic restrictions? Cover the bases but keep it as simple as possible.
  • Identify several potential grandmothers and approach them about participation in the Friendship Bench.
  • Provide training and resources agreed.
  • Build or adapt Friendship Benches.
  • Set a startup date and begin appropriate advertisement, whether within your women’s ministry, church-wide, or throughout the community.
  • Finally, pray over your grandmothers, pray for those they’ll minister to, and begin!

  • Sandy Mayle is a freelance writer who lives with her husband, Dave, in Erie, Pa.

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