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‘Friendship Bench’ may help fight mental illness

LONDON, Jan 1:  Friendship Benches – simple wooden seats with trained community “grandmothers” who listen to and support people living with anxiety, depression and other common mental disorders can improve the lives of millions of patients in developing countries, a new study has found.

Six months after undergoing six weekly “problem solving therapy” sessions on the Friendship Benches located at health clinics in major cities in Zimbabwe, participants showed significant differences in severity of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

The practitioners were lay health workers known as community “grandmothers” who were trained to support people with common mental disorders.

The innovative approach holds the potential to significantly improve the lives of millions of people with moderate and severe mental health problems in countries where access to treatment is limited or nonexistent, researchers said.

Patients with depression or anxiety who received problem-solving therapy through the Friendship Bench were more than three times less likely to have symptoms of depression after six months, compared to patients who received standard care, according to the researchers from University of Zimbabwe, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and King’s College London.

Patients were also four times less likely to have anxiety symptoms and five times less likely to have suicidal thoughts than the control group after follow-up.

Fifty per cent of patients who received standard care still had symptoms of depression compared to 14 per cent who received Friendship Bench.

About 48 per cent of patients who received standard care still had symptoms of anxiety compared to 12 per cent who received Friendship Bench, and 12 per cent of patients who received standard care still had suicidal thoughts compared to two per cent who received Friendship Bench.

The Friendship Bench intervention was also shown to be well suited to improve health outcomes among highly vulnerable individuals.

About 86 per cent of the study’s participants were women, over 40 per cent were HIV positive, and 70 per cent had experienced domestic violence or physical illness.

Dixon Chibanda, a consultant psychiatrist, co-founded the Friendship Bench network in response to the appalling shortage of evidence-based treatment for people with mental disorders in Zimbabwe, a problem common throughout Africa.

While about 25 per cent of the country’s primary care patients suffer from depression, anxiety and other common mental disorders, Zimbabwe (population 15 million) has only 10 psychiatrists and 15 clinical psychologists.

The study was published in the journal JAMA. (AGENCIES)

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