A psychiatry professor's mental health initiative in Zimbabwe has inspired a project to promote mental wellbeing at the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

A novel therapy model from Zimbabwe is being exported to the 2022 Qatar World Cup to cast a spotlight on global mental health.

The Friendship Bench project is made up of 32 benches that have been installed in prominent locations around Doha, including tournament stadiums. Each bench represents one of the national teams competing in the tournament. 

The project aims to promote discussion around mental health and offer advice on ways to promote mental wellbeing through sport and physical activity.

The initiative is part of the Sports and Health programme led by the World Health Organization and is in collaboration with Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health (MOPH).

“The Friendship Benches project is a powerful reminder of the importance of how health, from mental to physical health, is precious and common to all people and nations, and how, through sports, people can reach out to others as fellow human beings in the spirit of solidarity and support,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Several Qatar-based artists contributed to the design of the Friendship Benches, including including Faras Almeer, Health Policy Research Officer at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), who spearheaded the project.

READ MORE: Keep an eye out: Seven major attractions of Qatar 2022 World Cup

The inspiration from Zimbabwe

The idea behind the Friendship Benches comes from Zimbabwean Psychiatry professor Dixon Chibanda.

Chibanda's project has offered mental health therapy since 2006 to compatriots across the country who cannot afford expensive treatments.

Mental health sessions are carried out through lay health workers, colloquially referred to as "grandmothers".

Chibanda's mental health project started with just 14 grandmothers in Zimbabwe's oldest and poorest township, Mbare, and has now expanded to nearly 1,000 benches and over 1,500 grandmothers in different localities.

The Friendship Benches have helped bridge a shortage of professional healthcare workers in Zimbabwe, which has only 14 psychiatrists, 150 clinical psychologists and less than 500 psychiatric nurses serving a population of 16 million people.

Other countries have adopted the friendship bench model including Jordan, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and the US - where 60,000 people in the Bronx and Harlem areas have accessed the therapy.

The project applied in Qatar aligns with FIFA's #ReachOut campaign, designed to raise awareness of the symptoms of mental health conditions.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino said: “Through the #REACHOUT campaign, we acknowledged the importance of speaking with family and friends to foster positive mental health. The Friendship Benches project is another vehicle to raise awareness about mental health conditions and to encourage a conversation, which could save a life. 

"FIFA is proud to partner with the World Health Organization, and Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health to put football at the service of society and to leave a lasting legacy in Qatar for residents and visitors.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies