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

A tête-à-tête style wooden bench sits outside a public library, beside a colorful sign for the Chauncey community garden.
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
A friendship bench sits outside of the Chauncey Public Library, beside a Blessing Box and a community garden.

This article was originally published on Nov. 17, 2023.

Athens County’s friendship benches are tucked discreetly into pockets of public spaces: libraries, a community center, the health department.

Sometimes they’re vacant.

But other times, a trained and trusted community member with a listening ear, like Shari Blackwell, will sit on one side of the tête-à-tête style bench, inviting strangers to join her.

When they do, she listens.

“One of the biggest things I've found is people have no support,” Blackwell said.

So they lean on her, and talk through whatever problems they may be facing.

Some people struggle with drugs and homelessness, navigating relationships or recent health diagnoses.

“I recently met with a professional that had way too much on her plate,” Blackwell said. “Another one was a woman who is worried about her son being autistic.” 

Blackwell doesn’t dish out unwanted advice, she just listens, and when possible, guides people to available resources.

The toll of social isolation

Blackwell’s work at the friendship bench is a response to a mounting public health concern in Athens County: loneliness.

"It's much more comfortable to talk to somebody on the bench than it might be to sit down in a cold, clinical, sterile office and and share your deepest, darkest challenges."
Olivia Degitz, Friendship Bench Program Manager

In its last community health assessment, more than a third of participants cited concerns about social isolation — and that was even before the COVID pandemic.

“One of the really shocking pieces of our health assessment was how isolated people felt,” said Jack Pepper, Athens City-County Health Department's administrator.

Not only does this isolation take a toll on a person’s mental and emotional well-being, it actually affects the body physically too. Social isolation and loneliness are linked to higher risks for heart disease, diabetes and dementia.

The health department knew it had to do something, and it landed on an unconventional approach from an ocean away: friendship benches.

From Zimbabwe to Ohio

The idea of friendship benches originated in Zimbabwe, which faces a severe shortage of mental health care providers.

Dixon Chibanda says he’s one of just 19 psychiatrists in the country of 16 million people, and he wanted to figure out a way to make mental health care more accessible.

He did that by training grandmothers.

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

By training the respected women in empathetic listening and therapy techniques, and stationing them on benches outside of health clinics, the model not only increased access to care, it helped destigmatize mental illness too.

And the model worked: according to one study, 86% of people who used Zimbabwe’s friendship benches showed improvement, compared with just half of people who received care in a more traditional setting from a doctor or a nurse.

Health workers in Athens heard about benches' success at a global health conference, and saw parallels between the mental health care landscape in Zimbabwe and their corner of Appalachian Ohio.

“We're also very spread out and pretty rural in some parts,” said Olivia Degitz, Athens County’s friendship bench program manager. “Especially if you live further out in the community, there's less resources.”

The public health department applied for grant funding, and last year scattered friendship benches across underserved parts of the county. Those benches are regularly staffed by trained community health workers, and people interested in the service 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.

The results from Chauncey

Chauncey’s friendship bench sits just outside the village’s one-room library, beside a Blessing Box and a community garden where a sunflower grows taller than the tiny building.

A small, one-room public library on a street corner
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
The Chauncey Public Library is just one room, but it's a gathering space for community members.

“This library, we call it Chauncey's living room because it's just where people come to hang out,” said youth services librarian Ellie Hamrick. “It’s small and intimate.”

But people here deal with big problems.

“People are navigating grief and housing insecurity and food insecurity and anxiety and just all the things that we deal with — the heavy, heavy stuff,” she said. “But there's no health care in Chauncey, period, so just having someone to listen, I feel like has been really, really important for people.”

Over the past year, Hamrick has seen the program rise in popularity. These days, some teenagers have even started their own version of the friendship bench.

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

It’s exactly the program’s intention: to strengthen people — and whole communities — one conversation at a time.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.