Friendship Bench training program helps community members offer a listening ear

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) — A community mental health program originating from Zimbabwe has taken root in southeast Ohio.

The Athens City-County Health Department decided to bring the Friendship Bench model to the area after surveys showed a high number of residents suffer from loneliness and isolation.

“Loneliness is as harmful to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” said Athens Friendship Bench director Olivia Degitz.

The premise of the program is simple: Certified volunteers from the community meet with people who need a friendly ear. They work together to resolve issues.

Volunteers can also refer people to additional mental health resources if necessary.

The health department has Friendship Bench stations — actual benches — set up at its office in Athens and at the public libraries in The Plains and Chauncey. Community members can also schedule Friendship Bench appointments through the health department website.

Community members interested in becoming volunteers can join a free 26-hour training June 21 through 23 at the Ohio University Innovation Center.

A green metal bench sits on a brick path by a tree.
Friendship Bench listeners meet community members on actual benches to hear their problems and offer support, [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB/Report for America]
There, they will learn to become certified Friendship Bench “listeners.”

“We use the model that was created by the team in Zimbabwe, and it includes a basic framework … which basically involves identifying a problem, brainstorming a solution, selecting a solution, making a plan,” Degitz explained.

In addition to problem-solving skills, Degitz said that attendees will also learn mental health literacy and listening skills.

Degitz also stressed that not everyone has to become a volunteer. Many previous attendees have come because they want to apply the skills to their own lives.

“There’s no expectation (that people will volunteer),” Degitz said. “We just rather more folks take the training than feel pressured for any sort of commitment.”

Anyone interested in registering for the June training can do so by calling 740-300-0488 or emailing