• Purnima Ramakrishnan

If Nothing Goes Well, Call Your Grandma!

#worldmentalhealthday #SDG3 #SDG4 #SDG10 #SDG11 #GLOW #Heartfulness #Webinar

In the GLOW webinar, “Drawing on Generational Wisdom for Emotional Wellness” Chrysula Winegar, Senior Communications Director, United Nations Foundation, talks about the relevance of the age-old concept of wisdom-bridge to handle mental health challenges.

Dr. Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist in Zimbabwe ingeniously devised a program called “The Friendship Bench” which helped over 30,000 people handle their mental health challenges. All that he had in hand was a team of 14 grandmothers and a bench, hence the name of the program. This method has been empirically vetted and has expanded to countries beyond and including the US.

Chrysula discussed this case study in the context of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #3 – Health and Well Being (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages).

SDGs? What are SDGs?

Chrysula says: Back in 2015, all 193 member states for the United Nations came together with a global problem-solving agenda, consisting of evidence-based solutions, which were answers to the key issues that our planet is facing. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a framework of 17 different goals, was thus born. Health and wellbeing (SDG 3) ensures healthy lives and promotes wellbeing for all ages. This goal is not just about health, it’s not just about ‘do you have a particular disease that you’re battling, that is a clinical disease’ or ‘battling with your heart’ or ‘dealing with diabetes or an infectious disease’. Wellbeing opens the door within the health framework for us to talk about the whole person and to be able to do that at a world-wide level. There are a lot of intersection points between these goals; they don’t just sit in isolation.

SDG 5 is around gender and equality issues. SDG 10 is around reducing inequalities, which tackles vulnerable populations, those with physical disabilities, and those dealing with discrimination (both of these are interconnected to one another). SDG 16 is about peace and security, justice, and access to a safe legal system where individual problems are recognized, which is also related to the previously mentioned goals. And of course, throughout the entire SDG agenda, there is the drumbeat of tackling climate and protecting our planet - SDG 13, which is around tackling climate change.

So, with that framework in the back of our minds, knowing that the countries have come together, that the governments have collectively said ‘There’s a plan and there’s a pathway that we can take as a world to be able to face these issues head-on and tackle them’, we can move towards addressing them.

SDG 3 and Mental Well Being

For too long, we have treated mental wellness as a taboo and brushed it aside. The opportunity to tackle our mental and emotional wellbeing, and value it as much as we value our physical wellbeing is really critical. There are 300 million people around the world, according to WHO, who suffer from depression. WHO said that in 2016 there were 800,000 suicides. This is why mental wellbeing is a planetary crisis and we need to tackle it.

Whether we realize it or not, we all face anxiety, we all at some point, have a day where we feel ‘blue’. We all get sad, we all get into a state where we’re not as sparkly and optimistic as usual. And for some of us, this leads to something more serious.

Grandmothers and Mental Well Being

Question: Why resort to other people who are not traditional caretakers like doctors or counselors or psychiatrists who treat depression? Why are we talking about grandmothers in this context?

Chrysula Winegar: I loved that quote you shared –

If nothing is going well, call your grandmother – Italian Proverb” and it resonated so deeply with me.

I am far away from my mother and we also live far away from my husband’s mother, we’ve worked really hard to give our children access to those relationships. In fact, my kids have just come back from three weeks with my husband’s mother and I can already see the strengthening in them as human beings from having that time with her and the safe place that she provides them. So, I just think that this is a really powerful concept. And it’s this idea that when, many of us now in the modern world, who move away from our families geographically and physically, we may not have the same opportunity to just pop around to have a cup of tea and talk through our problems and get that sense of generational wisdom shared. So, this story that we’re going to talk about in a minute, is a really powerful intersection of all of that.

I met Dr. Dixon Chibanda who is based out of Zimbabwe. At a time when he was early in his practice as a doctor, he was really drawn to mental wellness for a variety of factors. He had a couple of patients that he deeply cared about who committed suicide and he felt incredibly hopeless and helpless at that time and so deepened his studies of psychiatry and he became Zimbabwe’s only psychiatrist operation in the public sector. Now, this is an environment that has had multiple conflicts so you’re talking about many generations of surviving war and surviving poverty and the HIV crisis which has decimated that country as well as many others in the sub-Saharan Africa, tuberculosis which is often paired with HIV epidemics, so there are a number of factors at play here in creating a mental health crisis. And you add to that that there aren’t the professionals available or trained to tackle this. The recent data I saw said that there was approximately 1 psychiatrist for every 1.5 million people in Zimbabwe. Even, in a city like New York City, we have just 1 for every 6000 people.

Dr. Dixon came up with a really fascinating idea to tap into the concept of generational wisdom. At the hospital he was working at, the nurses were very busy with HIV cases but the hospital said, ‘Well, we have got these grandmothers and we can give you some space outdoors. That’s all we’ve got for you’. He often jokes that people think I’m a genius, but I didn’t really come up with it. It was just that invention is the mother of necessity. Creatively, he and the grandmothers came up with this idea of what has been called the ‘friendship bench’. They put benches outside the hospital grounds and the grandmothers took shifts to counsel with people. They said these spaces are safe spaces and individuals in crisis to whatever degree could come, sit on a friendship bench and a grandmother would hear them, would listen to them, and would counsel with them. And Dr. Dixon said something very interesting. He said, initially he was trying to use the language of suicidal ideation and proper medical terms around mental illness, and what these women told him was that ‘You have to use the language of the people’. This particular community is largely from the Shona tribe and the Shona language in the Southern part of the African continent. So they were also able to tap into indigenous wisdom and use a language that would make sense from a tribal context around openness, around sharing.

So, the grandmothers were able to create a fusion of the medical training that they were given, which was pretty basic, and their indigenous wisdom and bring these things together. I think that that is a very powerful model for any medical approach; we need to, as a society, bridge the wisdom and the scientific knowledge that we have developed over the last few hundred years and bring those together. That’s how we get to a powerful place.

You can watch the complete webinar below.

We concluded the webinar with an experiential session of Heartfulness relaxation and meditation. Relaxation and meditation are help reduce feelings of depression and other mental health challenges. These can supplement long term medical treatment. Adding meditation and relaxation to your health regime – free of cost, and also availing a certified Heartfulness trainer’s services greatly improves the quality of life.

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