Tuesday, March 21, 2023 | Sha'ban 28, 1444 H
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The grandmothers' bench

An initiative in Africa helps people to get mental health advice from trained grandmothers is considered a smart way to address stigma and overcome shortage of trained counsellors

I was recently listening to a podcast about an initiative in Zimbabwe where a lack of mental health professionals led the authorities to train grandmothers to provide psychological support after receiving training. The programme was called the “friendship bench”. It functioned in such a way that a willing elderly woman would sit on a bench at the hospital garden and the person seeking mental health advice would come and sit next to her. Then a conversation between the two begins.

The idea was initially driven by the shortage of trained mental health professionals and clinics, and hence the bench in the open space. Grandmothers were chosen because they have the time and the patience to listen to younger people and use their life experiences and basic training in providing psychological support. Grandmothers are also well respected in the African communities as they are perceived to be kind and caring and would be more likely to listen to people without being judgmental.

The grandmothers received basic training in a simplified version of cognitive behavioural therapy which is a type of therapy that focuses on addressing unhealthy way of thinking and replacing them with new and more positive ones. This is done in three steps, the first step is called “Opening the Mind,” and involves listening to the person, the second step is called “Uplifting,” and involves summarising the problems and asking the person to select one issue that they would like to work on, and the third is “Strengthening,” which involves breaking down the problem and providing a plan. One of the reasons for the programme's success is the fact that the person seeking counselling gets to choose what he or she wants to work on even if the grandmother felt that the issue was not the most important one for the person. Therapy is done sitting on a bench in the open space which is an excellent way to relax and puts the person at ease to express himself or herself.

This project is an example of initiatives to address stigma towards mental illness which makes people of different communities hesitant to consult a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Stigma is an international phenomenon and different countries developed initiatives to address it. Here in Oman and other Arab countries stigma towards mental illness stems from several misconceptions about the causes of mental illness as some people believe mental health conditions are caused by magic or evil eye or by being less religious.

Such beliefs alienate the person and make them shy away from seeking professional advice and suffer in silence which eventually has a negative impact on their health and can lead in some cases to suicide or addiction to alcohol or narcotic substances. What I like about the grandmothers bench initiative is that it did not cost much in terms of money but was mainly built on people’s creativity and passion to help others. Getting grandmothers involved is a smart way of helping them defeat their own loneliness and enabling them to give back to their communities. If the person needed more specialised treatment the grandmother would arrange for him to see the psychiatrist.

So what can we learn from this initiative? For me, the first thought that came to my mind when listing to the postcast was how well power can make people more creative and enable them work with limited resources, how community spirit brings people together to think out of the box and come up with creative ideas.

Let us all learn from each other and work towards helping those who are in need.

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