Hummel column: Harnessing the power of 400 grandmas
Zimbabwe has 16.5 million people and only 12 trained psychiatrists, or one psychiatrist for every 1.5 million people.
And that's a huge problem, because due to wars and tribal atrocities, there is a huge amount of loneliness and depression in that country, including PTSD. The problem came into focus in 2006 when a person who had threatened suicide was set up with a mental health evaluation, then missed her appointment because she didn't have the $15 necessary to catch a bus and see the doctor. She committed suicide — a common tragedy in Zimbabwe.
How does a country with almost no mental health professionals tackle a mental health crisis? They didn't call Harvard for an answer. After starting with 14, they recruited 400 grandmothers.
These grandmothers had no medical training, no experience in mental health counseling and most had minimal educations. They were trained in "talk therapy" and provided talking and listening therapy for free. The program was called The Friendship Bench and has served thousands of depressed (due to physical trauma, addictions, domestic abuse, and other usual causes of depression around the world) and have had amazing success. The program has been evaluated by the professionals and experts and the Journal of the American Medical Association has reported positive results. This is not a fluke.
What does that tell you? Two things. First, lonely and depressed people need somebody to talk to — it's not rocket science. Local knowledge and wisdom can work the same magic as a PhD. And the second thing is the amazing power of grandmothers.
I knew my mother's mother. She had nine children, but until I came along, no grandchildren. So, being her first grandchild, I was a big deal. Her name was Florence, but they called her Flossie. I remember two things about her — she was very devout and very funny. When she sectioned oranges for me, she called each section a "bird." I think I was almost 20 years old before I realized that the whole world didn't call orange sections birds. It was embarrassing.
J.D. Vance was born in the hills of Kentucky into what he called a "hillbilly" family. By that he meant a backward family that had no regard for finishing school, hard work or ambition.
In his book Hillbilly Elegy, he describes a father who disappeared when J.D. was just a young boy, and a mother with drug problems who couldn't look after him. He more or less grew up in the home of his grandmother, "Mamaw" who recognized herself as a hillbilly, but dearly loved J.D. and encouraged (pushed) him to pursue an education.
The result was that, while most other hillbillies his age were working for minimum wage in the industrial steel mills of Ohio or were unemployed, he advanced through Ohio State University, the Army and Yale University to a successful professional career in California. It wouldn't have happened without the love and urging of his hillbilly Mamaw.
There are many stories of successful black athletes, raised on the streets in the ghettos, who with no father and no reliable mother, were loved and raised by a grandmother who kept them in school, on the path and out of jail. Many stars have testified "I owe it all to my grandma."
Grandmothers usually demonstrate their power when somebody else, like a mother, father, other relative, or system (as in Zimbabwe) fails. What then qualifies them to assert themselves is not talent, training or education, but experience, common sense, grit, hard work, personal example and a mother's love stretched an extra generation. My grandmother didn't need to step in, but she could have if necessary, and so could have yours.
The moral of the story is that grandmothers can step in and do miracles when necessary because their age, experience and caring qualify them to fill huge gaps in their families, communities and countries.
Honor your grandmothers. You have no idea how much they love you, and what they are capable of doing.