Grandmothers, take note: in Africa, mental health professionals pioneered a method where they used grandmothers and friendship benches to screen people for basic psychiatric services.

In 2004, a man named Dixon Chibanda was one of only two psychiatrists in all of Zimbabwe (a country of about 12.5 million people). He had a patient named Erica who traveled to Harare, the capital city, from a rural village more than 160 miles away to meet with him. Erica had passed her exams at school but was unable to find work. She had hoped to marry a man who chose another woman. She felt worthless.

Chibanda and Erica met monthly for about a year. He prescribed a mild antidepressant, hoping it would help her cope with her difficulties. Then Erica committed suicide in 2005.

Chibanda changed his career path after Erica’s death, focusing instead on helping get mental help for under-served populations like Erica’s village. And he started with the grandmothers.

Grandmothers had been working in public health clinics in Zimbabwe since the 1980s. In 2006, the clinics asked grandmothers to provide basic psychological therapies to people.

Chibanda and the grandmothers decided to put a Friendship Bench under a shade tree. This is where they would ask patients 14 questions to determine if they needed further treatment, such as “In the last week, have you been thinking too much?” or “Have you thought of killing yourself?”

Then the grandmothers would help them through problem-solving therapy to identify the stresses and social issues in their lives and guide patients to find their own solutions. If the patient needed more intensive therapy, the grandmothers would refer them to Chibanda.

In 2016, Chibanda and his colleagues found that Friendship Bench treatment showed “a significant decrease in depressive symptoms.”

I think this is wonderful. There are so many benefits when younger people to connect with the elderly. Elderly people can feel a sense of purpose that is sometimes lacking with age. Young people can benefit from the perspective that comes with their years.

Older people tend to be less stressed themselves (I wrote about a study that stress levels drop off for women when they reach their 50s and 60s) and they can mirror this behavior for younger people through turbulent periods of their lives.

Grandmothers, remember that you are important. Take some time to reach out to your loved ones or figure out ways to mentor vulnerable youth and young adults in your area. It can truly save lives.

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