Florence Manyande’s string of bad luck began in 2010. She had lost seemingly everything and was severely depressed. She was at rock bottom. But then she was given a blessing in disguise. She was hit by a car.
By the time of her accident, Manyande’s husband had left her. She was taking care of her three children all by herself. She didn’t know how she could pay for their schooling. She had no home and her family refused to take her in. She was losing hope. But after being hit by a car on that fateful day, a woman pulled her from the road and took her to a clinic to be treated.
That woman was a health worker and she introduced Manyande to something which changed her life forever. It was a bench. But it wasn’t just any old bench.
The Friendship Bench was coined by Dr. Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist at the University of Zimbabwe. Mental illness has a stigma throughout most of the world, but Zimbabwe takes the cake. In Zimbabwe, it is often seen as a curse and people traditionally seek an exorcism instead of going to a mental health clinic. Dr. Chibanda found that even though so many people refused to go to clinics, many seemed comfortable sitting on a park bench and sharing their problems with a member of their community.
These community counselors are usually older women who are respected members of the community. Together, they make plans to overcome the problem at hand.
A study done on the Friendship Benches showed impressive results. Two groups of people were tested. One group received standard treatment for anxiety and depression, including the prescription of medication as needed. The other experienced the Friendship Bench. After six months, half of the standard group still had symptoms. But only 13% of the Bench group still had symptoms!
The Friendship Benches also seem to be changing the culture around mental illness in Zimbabwe. People feel more comfortable talking about their conditions and this is making the subject less of a taboo.
Friendship Benches have been a resounding success and are spreading to multiple cities.
Manyande has now recovered from her accident. She and her children have a home, which she found through her new community of supportive friends. She learned to crochet bags to make money. And her relationship with her family has improved. Best of all, she feels better emotionally and is no longer suicidal. She says that one of the best parts of the Friendship Bench is knowing that there is someone who will listen.