A recent Washington Post article detailed a mental health initiative in Zimbabwe that utilizes “community grandmothers” — lay health workers trained in counseling skills, problem solving and self-care — to help provide vital mental health services to the millions of under-served people facing emotional challenges. These elders are a vital source of support and healing for a nation of more than 14 million residents — who are served by 13 psychiatrists throughout the entire country.
Known as the Friendship Bench Project, this effort highlights the crucial role of connection and listening in facilitating healing. As a trained social worker, I would never underestimate the importance of the education I received, which enables me to diagnose mental illness, discern appropriate treatment protocols for various presenting problems, and understand psychopharmacology’s use in abetting symptoms. But decades of book learning is useless without the gifts of compassion, empathy and unconditional positive regard that all of us can learn and practice. Feeling heard, validated and supported help empower individuals to value themselves and their experiences, and to make healthy choices that move their lives forward. Knowing the difference between generalized anxiety disorder and OCD, for example, requires specific knowledge and assessment skills. But any of us can provide a safe and welcoming embrace, an interest in each other’s feelings, fears and experiences. Like these African grandmothers, we can ease other’s suffering, and their isolation, by the gift of our genuine interest and presence.