Ella Jenkins

Ella Jenkins on Jun 11, 2019

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What has your grandma got in common with a killer whale?

Not sure?

Humans and killer whales (and some other toothed whales) are the only animals to experience the menopause. All other animals continue to reproduce into old age. Why is it that human females have evolved to live a long time after they stop reproducing?

The Grandmother Hypothesis

The Grandmother Hypothesis suggests that the menopause is adaptive. It causes older women to stop reproducing themselves, and instead help with raising their children’s children. They redirect their energy to promote the survival of their genes through younger generations, therefore increasing their reproductive success indirectly. Clever stuff, right?

If you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to spend time around young children, you’ll know just how much energy they demand. Human children have a high dependency for a long time, and so it’s difficult to care for an infant alone. Explaining the evolution of Grandma.

Plenty of studies have shown that the presence of a maternal grandmother is associated with better child outcomes, for example child survival and literacy levels. This is particularly apparent in developing countries, where grandmothers are more closely involved in child care.

Is it possible to take this unique role of Grandmothers and apply it to other contexts?

Introducing ‘The Friendship Bench’

15 years ago in Zimbabwe, economic troubles led to the Government pulling down lots of (apparently illegal) civilian houses. This had a number of devastating consequences. As well as immediate housing and social crises, a delayed onset of depression and other mental health issues became apparent. In a country where stigma around mental health issues is still common, many people were struggling to access any help at all.

Enter the Zimbabwean grannies.

The Friendship Bench is an initiative, developed by Dr. Dixon Chibanda, whereby people in need of support can sit with an elderly Zimbabwean lady, on a bench, and talk about their problems. The elderly ladies, who have become known as ‘community grandmothers’, are trained in evidenced-based talking therapies.

The scheme has been successfully evaluated by randomised controlled trail (RCT) to show that grandmothers are more successful at reducing symptoms of depression than standard treatments. The Friendship Bench has now been rolled out in over 100 communities, and a similar idea is being trialed in New York City.

Why the success?

 So why does this scheme work? What is it about grandmothers specifically that is so effective in this context?

Dr Dixon Chibanda puts it down to the unique qualities that grandmothers possess. Their ability to show empathy, actively listen, and help others to ‘open up the mind’. They are also trusted, being the custodians of local culture and wisdom.

It is interesting to note that when the same scheme was trialed with graduates, no where near the same levels of success were achieved.

What can we learn from this?

 Thinking laterally, there are a couple of key takeaways for behaviour change communications and public health interventions:

  1. Sometimes the most effective solutions are the most simple. The Friendship Bench doesn’t require any expensive materials, creative or investment. But it works.
  2. Don’t underestimate the power of unexpected influencers. Our behaviour can be strongly influenced by the behaviour of others around us. Harness these network nudges by tapping into social circles.
Be mindful of environment and context. Associations can be powerful. The friendly outdoor setting of the Friendship Bench helps to reduce the stigma about talking about mental health.

To find out more about the Friendship Bench, and hear some of the touching case studies, head to…