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African 'Friendship Bench' Helps the Depressed

A Friendship Bench is quite literally a park bench—with a higher calling. In Zimbabwe, friendship benches are located on the grounds of medical clinics around major cities. They're a safe place where trained community members counsel folks struggling with what they, in the local Shona language, call kufungisisa ("thinking too much") or what Americans call depression.

Dr. Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist at the University of Zimbabwe, came up with the name Friendship Bench back in 2006. In Zimbabwe, as in most places, there's a lot of stigma around mental illness. Chibanda figured out that while people were hesitant to head to a mental clinic and speak with a medical professional about their mental health, they were generally willing to sit on a park bench and share their worries with someone within their own community. At these benches, community counselors and patients meet weekly to discuss intimate issues—and develop a plan to overcome difficulties.

The strategy seems to be working. According to a study that tracked 573 patients with anxiety or depression for a six-month period, only 13 percent of those who participated in the Friendship Bench program still had symptoms of depression.

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