Empowering People with HIV: Study Shows Community-Based Therapy Can Improve Outcomes


A recent study conducted in Zimbabwe has found that individuals living with HIV, who also have mental health disorders, are three times more likely to maintain a low level of the virus through medication if they receive therapy through the Friendship Bench project. This community-based approach to therapy is the first of its kind to explore whether it can improve outcomes for those living with long-term illnesses alongside mental health disorders.

The Friendship Bench initiative, founded by Dr. Dixon Chibanda, professor of psychiatry and global mental health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), utilizes wooden park benches located discreetly near health clinics. Older community volunteers, referred to as “grandmothers,” provide one-to-one counseling sessions to individuals. These grandmothers, despite lacking prior medical knowledge, have received training in problem-solving therapy through the Friendship Bench project.

For individuals living with HIV, adhering to antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help decrease and maintain a lower level of the virus within the body. Achieving a low viral load is crucial in HIV care as it can halt progression to AIDS, increase life expectancy, and lower the risk of transmission to sexual partners, including drug-resistant strains.

The study involved 700 participants aged 18 and over who were recruited from eight HIV care clinics in Harare. Patients from six clinics received therapy through the Friendship Bench program, while those from the remaining two clinics received usual care. Blood tests to measure viral load and mental health assessments were conducted at the beginning of the study and again after six months of treatment.

Among the 499 patients who already had a suppressed level of the virus at the start of the study, those who received therapy through the Friendship Bench were three times less likely to experience an increase in viral load above the clinical threshold for suppression, which would prevent sexual transmission of the virus to an HIV-negative partner. The rate was significantly lower compared to those who received usual care (2.9% vs. 9.3%).

Furthermore, participants from the Friendship Bench clinics were also six times less likely to screen positive for a common mental health disorder at the end of the study (-36.5% vs. -6.7%). This highlights the significance of incorporating mental health support into HIV care.

The research team plans to replicate these findings with a larger participant pool and an extended follow-up period. Additionally, ongoing studies aim to evaluate the impact of the Friendship Bench project on individuals living with common mental health disorders alongside other chronic illnesses such as diabetes or hypertension.

This study emphasizes the power of community-based therapy in empowering individuals living with HIV and mental health disorders to effectively manage their conditions. By providing accessible and personalized support, the Friendship Bench project has the potential to significantly improve outcomes and enhance the overall well-being of these individuals.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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