Buddy benches are for grown-ups too – just ask Zimbabwe's community grannies

Initiatives around the world show the friendship bench can be a space where, like children, grown-ups feeling troubled or lonely can sit and have a chat

Al Sila, UAE - February 22, 2009 - Two men sit on a park bench in one of the few grassy areas in Al Sila. Al Sila is the last town in the south of UAE before crossing the border to Saudi Arabia. (Nicole Hill / The National) *** Local Caption ***  NH Sila28.jpgNS28MR SILA 01.jpg
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Do you remember your earliest childhood friends? David McCarroll was one of mine. Sometimes I would go to his house to play, although I cannot remember what we played. We would routinely pair up on class projects, although I cannot remember what any of those activities were. All the details have faded. I am, however, sure that I still draw on the psychological nourishment provided by that early childhood friendship. Even thinking about this long-lost friend puts a faint smile on my face.

In recognition of the value of friendship and the high cost of social isolation and exclusion, schools around the world have begun instituting so-called buddy or friendship benches. The bench is a safe space where children who are feeling troubled or lonely can sit, indicating they are looking for someone to play with or talk to. These buddy benches are typically part of a broader school strategy to promote positive mental health and cultivate an openness to seeking help.

The initiative has spawned 70 benches across Zimbabwe and successfully trained more than 400 lay health workers, known as 'community grandmothers'

In adulthood, friendship continues to be a vital source of well-being. Friends lift our spirits and keep us grounded; they sing when we are winning. They also help us keep it together when things are falling apart. The health-promoting properties of friendship are attested to in the lyrics of countless popular songs. "I get by with a little help from my friends," The Beatles sang on the album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There is a large body of research corroborating the benefits of social connection, belonging and friendship. A study in Perspectives on Psychological Science suggests social isolation is as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, making it a greater health risk than obesity. Friends do save lives – that cannot be underestimated.

Unfortunately, adult loneliness is a growing global public health concern. While social isolation was once assumed to be a problem of old age, it is now apparent that many young adults also experience high levels of loneliness. In the US, for example, a survey of more than 47,000 college students reported 64 per cent had felt "very lonely" in the past year.

The rise in societal levels of loneliness among adults has coincided with rising rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide. Feelings of loneliness and social isolation should never be trivialised; loneliness is frequently a gateway to depression. Last year the UK government increased the remit of the minister for sport and civil society to include loneliness. The decision was triggered by the Commission on Loneliness, a study suggesting social isolation was negatively impacting about 14 per cent of the UK population, amounting to nine million people.

So perhaps adults could benefit from buddy benches too? That was the conclusion of Dr Dixon Chibanda, an associate professor of global mental health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. To address the enormous gap between mental health needs and service provision in Zimbabwe, Dr Chibanda founded the Friendship Bench programme. To date, the initiative has spawned 70 benches across Zimbabwe and successfully trained more than 400 lay health workers, known as "community grandmothers". These grandmothers lend a friendly ear to adults experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. They have so far helped more than 35,000 Zimbabweans. Similar benches have since popped up in the UK, Canada and the US.

The Zimbabwean initiative has spawned 70 benches across the country and trained more than 400 lay health workers, known as 'community grandmothers'. These grandmothers lend a friendly ear to adults experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. They have so far helped more than 35,000 Zimbabweans. Facebook / @friendshipbenchzimbabwe

If a friendship bench appeared in your workplace and you were feeling low, would you sit on it? Perhaps it would feel like an admission of weakness, or we might fear it would stigmatise us in the eyes of our colleagues.

The same concerns were voiced about buddy benches in schools but they turned out to be ill-founded. A research team from Maynooth University looked at the impact of buddy benches across three schools in Ireland. They found about 40 per cent of children had used the bench and 90 per cent said they would sit and talk if they saw another child on the bench.

Adults could do with taking a leaf out of their book. Although there is still work to do, we have made progress in destigmatising mental health issues and encouraging people to seek help when they need it. The challenge now, in many nations, is developing the capacity to meet the growing demand for services. Initiatives such as the friendship bench – and the training of lay health workers or volunteers in psychological therapies – is one way to help address this issue.

We can also promote our own mental health and the well-being of others by simply being friendly, kind and concerned for others. In Arabic, the word friendship shares its linguistic roots with the word for charitable giving. Befriending others, if we are able, is an act of generosity that has a positive impact on our own well-being. Paradoxically, kindness is the highest form of looking after one's own true self-interests.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University