The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has stretched people’s mental health around the globe, and Zimbabwe is no exception. But some Zimbabweans hit hard by the stress have found unique support at the Friendship Bench, one of the country’s biggest counseling services.
The Friendship Bench was created in 2006 to provide counseling to those stressed out or depressed by the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe. The organization now has branches at most clinics and hospitals in Harare, and it is the only large mental health therapy service operating in the country.
The service is run by volunteers who say they do not want to see Zimbabwean people experience severe anxiety.
According to Chengetayi Nyamukapa, country coordinator for Friendship Bench, many people have stopped meeting others in person due to COVID-19.
"As Friendship Bench, are saying we are there, we continue to provide counseling to people who are infected, affected by COVID-19 pandemic,” Nyamukapa said. “Again, we are saying that we are unable to do that using our conventional face to face, but what we have done as an organization is to migrate to an online platform. We are accessible via WhatsApp, be it in audio, video call, being it texting and even a general call.”
But some, such as Elizabeth Chibeka, still come to their offices. The 49-year-old said her father is battling COVID-19.
“I have nothing to pay for his medical bills,” she said. “I am unemployed, I have no means to raise funds even for his food. Those are some of the things stressing me, hence I came here to talk to these people. COVID-19 is there and it's real, especially where we stay. We are failing to attend funerals because of COVID-19."
Fifty-three-year-old Forget Gutuza, one of the counselors at the Friendship Bench, said COVID-19 is dominating her counseling lately.
"COVID-19 has really spread its wings,” she said. “It’s all over. But people are not masking up. I do not know how awareness programs can be done. I wonder why people do not understand the situation we are in.”
Dr. Debra Machando, chief of mental health for the World Health Organization’s office in Zimbabwe, said COVID-19 has caused a lot of stress.
“Lately we have been seeing a number of psychological disorders, including panic attacks, insomnia, depression, and also a surge in terms of family conflict and violence,” she said. “So, there are a number of things that people can do to mitigate loss of income, to mitigate the stress. The first thing is to understand, to appreciate that we are living in strange times, and things are difficult. When people understand, it also means that they are going to put their expectations into perspective.”
This realization might help people to cope as the number of cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in Zimbabwe with the delta variant on the rise.