A recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association published last month has found that lay health care workers seated at wooden ‘friendship benches’ who actively listened and offered problem solving techniques to people with common mental health disorders had a significant effect on improving the symptoms of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
The implications of the study carried out in Zimbabwe are significant because they demonstrate the impact that lay health workers — that is, workers who have no formal qualifications or certifications — can have on reducing depressive symptoms and improving health outcomes for patients, particularly in under resourced areas.
The idea which underpins this study is a very simple one; creating a physical connection, open communication and mutual understanding between two human beings is beneficial for solving personal problems and reducing the impacts of mental health conditions.
So, is it possible the answer to reducing these conditions in society relies partially in our ability to have understanding conversations on wooden friendship benches?
The potential benefits that this simple idea could yield for governments, businesses and individuals are vast, yet most of us are aware that the skills needed to create these connections are not as common as they ought to be if we are going to solve the issue.
Often we find people really struggle to listen to each other at all, let alone understand and connect with each other on a deeper level.
This common void in human nature is not a new discovery and has been felt by even the brightest of minds. Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Whilst Henry David Thoreau acknowledged in his writings, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” Those of us who have ever truly listened or been understood by someone who really cared beyond superficiality will agree that there are vital benefits to be attained from this skill.
While being listened to fills us with a validating feeling, the sense of being understood by another also presents an alternative path toward professional help for people who may not have previously thought they needed it. This is particularly important for those who frequently shy away from seeking help for common mental health issues; most notably, men.
A 2011 study investigating men’s experiences with depression, masculine ideals and help seeking behaviour found that men who were able to create a social connection with a health worker based on mutual understanding and trust were more likely to see improvements in their future help seeking behaviour and recovery. The creation of this social connection was also effective in providing an alternative viewpoint of the masculine ideals which often fuel stigma and stop men from asking for help.
Because when a man feels as if he is being understood — and is an active and empowered participant in his own recovery — it alleviates some of the fear of being labelled (or self-labelled) ‘weak’. This realisation of personal empowerment through mutual understanding can in turn actually support the masculine ideals of feeling self-sufficient, active and strong.
I know from my experiences and from those of other men I have spoken with who have had an experience with a mental health condition, there is no better method of improving your mental health and general well being than sitting down with another person who you trust and speaking openly and honestly about what exactly is going on.
Once a mutually understanding social connection is made, there is often a relief from fear which is replaced by an acknowledgement of strength.
The realisation that human beings need social connections based on mutual understanding and trust in order to be mentally healthy is not a new discovery at all, but the wide spread application of practices that encourage its potential benefits are yet to be fully realised.
Published in The Good Men Project 12 January 2017