UK: Zimbabwe’s ‘Friendship Bench’ initiative exported to London

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“Friendship benches” where Londoners can talk to a health volunteer about anxietydepression and other concerns are set to be installed beside Tube stationsshops and cafes.

The initiative is being exported from Zimbabwe by an academic at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, using £200,000 from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

Dr Dixon Chibanda

Dr Dixon Chibanda, associate professor of global mental health at LSHTM, said he often walked down Oxford St after work to speak to homeless people and found many lonely, in need of empathy and a “place to tell their story”.

The benches were devised as a community location to address mental health issues, using lay volunteers – dubbed “grandmothers” – to listen to people in need.

Ms Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has donated US$2m to provide more benches across Zimbabwe and to launch the London pilot scheme.

Dr Chibanda said the benches acted as a “gateway” to more professional help.

The location of the benches in London will be decided after a feasibility study.

Dr Chibanda told the Standard: “I would like to create spaces in London where people feel free to share their stories in a non-judgemental, empathic environment.

“We can use all sorts of people. Any human can be trained to show empathy and to listen.

“What we have found over the years is we get a lot of people coming to the bench. You have people with domestic violence issues. You have people who are lonely. You have people struggling with substance abuse issues. The friendship bench is an entry point for all sorts of issues.

“I often like to walk down Oxford Street after my meetings at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There are a couple of ‘regular’ homeless people. Quite a number have underlying mental health issues.

“One of the things they always emphasise is loneliness. They say: ‘I’m sitting here and I have a sea of human beings walking past me, but I feel extremely lonely.’

“My immediate thought is: what if we had a friendship bench for someone who was empathic and would listen to his story?”

“Virtual” benches will also be established online.

Research found the Zimbabwe benches helped to significantly reduce the symptoms of patients with mental health problems.

The benches have also been rolled out in New York, Vietnam and Jordan.

Last year in Zimbabwe, 1,000 community health workers provided therapy to 54,000 people through the programme. This year’s goal is to reach more than 200,000 people.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 75 per cent of people with mental disorders in low- and middle- income countries receive no treatment for their disorder.

“The demand is there,” Dr Chibanda said. “We have received far more requests for benches than we have been able to provide so this is really going to be a game-changer and act as a catalyst to build on all the work we have done so far.”