“It's all about empowering people to go and solve their own problems”
When it comes to improving your mental health, it seems there’s no limit to the number of suggestions the internet has to offer. From gratitude journals and breathing exercises to weekly therapy sessions and prescription medications, absorbing the full spectrum of advice can be a bit daunting. But what if a simple park bench could do more good than a round of antidepressants?
One community in Zimbabwe decided to find out by designating “Friendship Benches” in the communal spaces of health clinics, NPR reports. In Harare and similarly sized cities, locals can seek out Friendship Benches to talk about their problems in a safe, judgment-free zone. University of Zimbabwe psychiatrist Dr. Dixon Chibanda came up with the idea after recognizing the stigma surrounding mental illness in his country. The traditional thinking that depression is a curse, combined with the fact that Zimbabwe’s population of 13 million relies on just 13 psychiatrists, makes it nearly impossible for sufferers to obtain quality help.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It's all about empowering people to go and solve their own problems.[/quote]
For those struggling with kufungisisa, the local Shona term for “thinking too much,” community counselors are available to meet and discuss personal issues at the benches on a weekly basis. Treatment also encourages group therapy sessions, which involves patients gathering at benches to relate both their troubles and progress. This method seems to be much more palatable for the typical Zimbabwean, Chibanda says. As he tells NPR, “It's all about empowering people to go and solve their own problems.”
A study recently published in JAMA supports Dr. Chibanda’s anecdotal findings with evidence of Friendship Benches fighting depression more effectively than prescribed medications. Half of the 573 patients studied in Harare received standard treatment involving speaking to a nurse and getting prescriptions, while the other half participated in Friendship Bench meetings. Six months after the study began, 50 percent of those who got the standard treatment still showed signs of depression, while just 13 percent of Friendship Bench participants showed symptoms. To be clear, talking to any random stranger at a park bench probably won’t give you the same results as talking to a community member who’s been trained to give individual and group counseling at a Friendship Bench.
Apparently, the idea of repurposing benches to foster a sense of community is catching on. Three years ago, 10-year-old Christian Bucks got the idea to install a “Buddy Bench” at his school Pennsylvania. And in Bowling Green, Ohio, one dad and a troop of Girl Scouts decided to tackle playground loneliness head-on by installing buddy benches of their own. At a Buddy Bench, children having a hard time finding playmates can take a seat to let other students know they want to be included, the Sentinel-Tribune reports. According to Christopher Ostrowski, who raised funds to install the benches at his son’s school this past fall, kids are already using the new system and learning they’re not alone in the process. “It’s amazing the number of kids with no one to play with at recess,” Ostrowski tells the Sentinel-Tribune, “I did this project mainly for my son at Kenwood. But I could not just do it there. So many kids in our city feel alone at recess, and hopefully this will help.”