Doctors estimate one in four Zimbabweans battles depression or anxiety, but there are just 12 psychiatrists treating the entire population of 14 million.
"We cannot possibly go the route of training psychiatrists and psychologists because it would take 15 years,” said Dr. Victoria Simms of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “How are we going to provide treatment?"
Local doctors have come up with a simple, but seemingly effective, answer.
Wooden seats, or “friendship benches,” were installed on the grounds of several health clinics in Harare. Visitors were offered six one-on-one counseling sessions with lay health workers, known as “grandmother health providers.”
Those women were trained "to offer problem-solving therapy,” Simms said. “And so the patient explains what all their problems are, and it is opening up the mind in the sense of allowing the patient to see that they can do something about their problems."
The study involved more than 550 patients. After six months, 14 percent of the patients in the friendship bench group reported symptoms of depression, compared to 50 percent in a control group. They were also five times less likely to have suicidal thoughts.
The range of benefits were far-reaching, according to the co-founder of the program, Dr. Dixon Chibanda of the University of Zimbabwe.
"Not only a mental health sort of package, but a package that actually improved outcomes of things like hypertension, diabetes, and adherence to medication for people living with HIV," Chibanda told VOA via Skype.
That success has led to friendship benches being rolled out at 60 clinics in Harare and two other cities. The Canadian government is helping fund the expansion through its Grand Challenges Canada aid program, making it one of the biggest programs in sub-Saharan Africa.
Researchers say it could be a blueprint for mental health in low-income regions, and could even offer lessons for treatment in richer countries.