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How Athens County is using ‘friendship benches’ to address a growing public health problem

How Athens County is using ‘friendship benches’ to address a growing public health problem

This article was originally published on November 17, 2023.

Athens County Friendship Benches are discreetly hidden in various public locations: libraries, a community center, or the health department.

Sometimes they are empty.

But sometimes a trained and trusted member of the community with an open ear, such as Shari Blackwell, sits on one side of the tête-à-tête bench and invites strangers to sit with her.

When they do, she listens.

“One of the biggest problems I’ve found is that people don’t have support,” Blackwell said.

So they rely on them and talk about any problems they face.

Some people are struggling with drugs, homelessness, navigating relationships, or recently dealing with a health diagnosis.

“I recently met with a professional who had way too much on her plate,” Blackwell said. “Another was a woman who was concerned that her son might be autistic.”

Blackwell doesn’t give unsolicited advice, she just listens and, when possible, points people to available resources.

The toll of social isolation

Blackwell’s work on the Friendship Bench is a response to a growing public health problem in Athens County: loneliness.

“It is much more pleasant to talk to someone on the bench than to sit in a cold, clinical, sterile office and share your deepest, darkest challenges.”

Olivia Degitz, Program Director Friendship Bench

In the last community health survey, more than a third of participants expressed concerns about social isolation – and this was the case even before the Covid pandemic.

“One of the really shocking aspects of our health assessment was how isolated people felt,” said Jack Pepper, director of the Athens City and County Health Department.

This isolation not only negatively impacts a person’s mental and emotional well-being, but also physically. Social isolation and loneliness are linked to a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and dementia.

The health department knew something had to be done and came up with an unconventional idea that reached far across the ocean: friendship benches.

From Zimbabwe to Ohio

The idea of ​​friendship benches originated in Zimbabwe, where there is a severe shortage of mental health care providers.

Dixon Chibanda says he is one of only 19 psychiatrists in this country of 16 million people and he wanted to find a way to make mental health care more accessible.

He achieved this by training grandmothers.

“In Zimbabwe, grandmothers are the custodians of local culture, wisdom and knowledge, making them the perfect therapists in the communities,” he said in a YouTube video.

By training affected women in empathetic listening and therapy techniques and placing them on benches outside health clinics, the model not only improved access to care but also helped destigmatize mental illness.

And the model worked: According to one study, 86 percent of people who used Zimbabwe’s friendship benches showed an improvement in their condition. In comparison, the figure was only half for people who were cared for by a doctor or nurse in a more traditional setting.

At a global health conference in Athens, health professionals heard about the success of the therapy benches and saw parallels between mental health care in Zimbabwe and their corner of Appalachia in Ohio.

“We’re also very spread out and quite rural in some areas,” said Olivia Degitz, director of the Athens County Friendship Bank program. “Especially if you live further out in the community, there are fewer resources.”

The health department applied for grants and distributed friendship benches in underserved parts of the county last year. These benches are regularly staffed by trained community health workers, and interested individuals can sign up for an appointment online.

In the village of Chauncey, about 10 minutes north of the city of Athens, this model is already working.

Chauncey’s results

Chauncey’s Friendship Bench stands directly in front of the village’s one-room library, next to a blessing box and a community garden where a sunflower grows larger than the small building.

A small, one-room public library on a street corner

Erin Gottsacker

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The Ohio Newsroom

The Chauncey Public Library may be a one-room space, but it is a gathering place for community members.

“We call this library Chauncey’s living room because people just hang out there,” said youth librarian Ellie Hamrick. “It’s small and intimate.”

But the people here are facing big problems.

“People are struggling with grief, housing, food insecurity, fear and all the things we deal with – the hard, hard stuff,” she said. “But in Chauncey, there’s no health care at all, so I think it’s really, really important for people to just have someone to listen to them.”

Over the past year, Hamrick has watched the program grow in popularity, with some teens even starting their own version of the Friendship Bench.

“They just talk to each other,” Hamrick said. “And some of the older teens are kind of like mentors to some of the tweens.”

And that is precisely the intention of the program: to empower people – and entire communities – through every conversation.