Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization. Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability and it contributes to 800,000 suicides per year, the majority of which occur in developing countries.
No one knows how many Zimbabweans suffer from kufungisisa, the local word for depression (literally, “thinking too much” in Shona). But Chibanda is certain the number is high. “In Zimbabwe, we like to say that we have four generations of psychological trauma,” he says, citing the Rhodesian Bush War, the Matabeleland massacre and other atrocities.
Yet those suffering from depression have few options due to a dearth of mental health professionals. Chibanda, who is director of the African Mental Health Research Initiative and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Zimbabwe and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is one of just 12 psychiatrists practising in Zimbabwe – a country of over 16 million. Such grim statistics are typical in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the ratio of psychiatrists and psychologists to citizens is one for every 1.5 million. “Some countries don’t even have a single psychiatrist,” Chibanda says.
In brainstorming how to tackle this problem, he arrived at an unlikely solution: grandmothers. Since 2006, Chibanda and his team have trained over 400 of the grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy, which they deliver for free in more than 70 communities in Zimbabwe. In 2017 alone, the Friendship Bench, as the programme is called, helped over 30,000 people there. The method has been empirically vetted and have been expanded to countries beyond, including the US.
The programme, Chibanda believes, can serve as a blueprint for any community, city or country interested in bringing affordable, accessible and highly effective mental health services to its residents. As Chibanda puts it: “Imagine if we could create a global network of grandmothers in every major city in the world.”
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