There Are Now Benches In NYC Where You Can Sit And Talk To Someone If You Can’t Afford Therapy

By Psquared - July 29, 2019

Life is now more fast-paced than it’s ever been. While it’s a blessing that we have so many resources available to us, it can be quite overwhelming. With the overabundance of knowledge and technology, it’s easy to feel lost in the shuffle and that the problems of your life and the world are never-ending and insurmountable. While advances are being made constantly to improve our lives each and every day, everything isn’t perfect and it never will be.

There will always be conflict and there will always be illnesses that humans have to contend with that will get in the way of our prosperity and happiness. But out of all of the illnesses in the world, there’s one that affects countless millions and the worst part is that it goes unseen and many don’t know how to deal with it. Luckily, different organizations are out there trying to change that and to spread awareness and education on the topic. And one organization is standing up to it in an interesting manner. Or, more accurately, sitting down to it…



Depression is one of the most debilitating diseases out there. If you suffer from it or know someone who does (and believe us, you do), this is sadly not new to you.

It’s like a heaviness you can’t explain that weighs you down and prevents you from being able to live the way you want to.

Worse of all, there’s such a stigma attached to it. In poor countries, it isn’t treated at all, and even here in the U.S. millions go without seeking help.



Studies in 2013 and 2014 estimated that over half a million residents in New York City suffer from depression.

Mind you, that’s an incredibly conservative estimate. But even among those number, it was learned that fewer than 40 percent were getting treatment for it.

The city is beginning to take this crisis seriously, luckily, and created a program called ThriveNYC that is devoted to creating a mental health system that is accessible and works for those in need.

Friendship Benches


Getting medical help for depression is important, but many don’t have the time or money for it.

And worse, many are too afraid or proud to reach out for help, and wouldn’t even know where to begin if they wanted to.

That’s why Thrive NYC has created a series of popup benches. Called “Friendship Benches,” they are located outside agencies called Neighborhood Health Action Centers in the Tremont section of the Bronx, East Harlem and Brownsville in Brooklyn. Here’s how they work…

Sit And Talk


Helen Skipper (known as Skip) and Steven Lopez are involved in the program. They sit and talk to anyone in need.

They aren’t therapists. However, according to those that run the program, they have something much more valuable than a degree: experience and empathy with what locals are going through.

“These are nontraditional safe spaces in plain view — no strings attached. You can work with someone who has a heart and understands and has been through the system,” said Takeesha White, who is the acting assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Systems Partnership in the Center for Health Equity.

Free And Helpful


Counseling can be expensive and hard to come by, but Mr. Lopez and Ms. Skipper have been through it and are happy to help for free.

Mr. Lopez is a recovering addict who is a licensed therapist dealing in substance abuse.

Ms. Skipper was on her way to being a doctor when drug use destroyed her life. She’s been clean and sober since 2007 and wants to help other avoid making her mistakes and show that change is possible, saying, “You can’t underestimate the value of people who have triumphed in this broken system.”

The Original Idea


The idea of the Friendship Bench is beginning to take off, not only in New York, but other cities around the globe.

It’s a remarkably kind and helpful idea to give counseling to those who need it and may be afraid to seek it out, and to do it for free.

But where did this idea originally come from? Dr. Dixon Chibanda was a doctor working in Harare, Zimbabwe. She came up with this idea, and developed the system that would soon become a movement.



It started as a way to use nonprofessionals to help out those in need who couldn’t afford traditional therapy.

“Grannies” (volunteers that would wear a brown dress) would sit on wooden benches and have conversations with anyone who wanted to talk to them.

It started as an experiment to see if anyone would be willing to take them up on the offer, as mental health is even more stigmatized in this part of the world than it is in the U.S.



The experiment turned out to be a complete success. Not only were strangers willing to sit and chat, but many had breakthroughs with their issues.

Dr. Mary T. Bassett, New York’s former commissioner of health and mental hygiene, and Dr. Gary Belkin, a former head of the city’s mental health department, were in Zimbabwe at the time this became popularized.

They noticed how effective it was in helping those in need, and best of all, it was quick, cheap and easy to spread.



The Grannies received two weeks of training before taking to their benches and helping others.

They were taught to understand and diagnose depression and learn about problem-solving therapy, so they could give those they were talking to tools to use once they left to better their situations.

These problem-solving therapy techniques include guiding patients as they think through their problems and coming up with possible solutions. Then, they encourage the patients to implement them and come back with a report on how things are going.



So, how effective is this system? Therapists cost so much to see because they’re so highly trained.

Surely, someone can’t just be given a crash course in two weeks and be expected to actually help people simply by talking to them on a bench.

Actually, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Friendship Bench treatment effectively cured depression. It’s one of many studies showing that even those with little education can quickly learn to treat depression and anxiety.

New York Friendship Benches


This is fantastic news, because without the Friendship Benches, Zimbabweans would have virtually no access to mental health care.

And while New York City has hundreds of licensed psychologists and psychiatrists, many of them don’t accept Medicaid. And this is a major problem.

Poor people suffer depression disproportionately. And without being able to afford treatment, it just compounds the issue. Luckily, these Friendship Benches are now popping up in the Big Apple and helping those who need it.



Now that these benches are being made available, it’s important to spread the word and let everyone know help is out there.

There are many reasons people suffering from depression don’t get help. Many don’t even realize that they’re depressed.

Several don’t know help is possible and many don’t trust the system or are turned off by the bureaucracy and red tape trying to go through government programs. That’s why it’s so important that these are easily accessible and also effective.

A Kind Conversation


And sometimes, it’s just nice to have a pleasant conversation with someone, and to know that others care.

“Nobody in New York City says, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and really wants to hear the answer,” Ms. Skipper said. “We do. And we are ready where we stand to help.”

And while the New York version of the Friendship Bench is popping up in more locations and helping several in need, it isn’t perfect, as some critics have pointed out…

Not Perfect


Thrive is a program that means well in what they do, but their practices can be a bit convoluted and expensive.

Only about 10 percent of the program’s spending goes toward serious mental illness, and some critics believe that’s dangerously misguided.

However, while it can be argued they should expand their focus to all sorts of mental illnesses, their primary focus is on common ones such as depression, and the Friendship Benches are at least proven effective in helping with that.



So if you’re suffering from depression, please be aware that you are not alone and there are those out there who are ready and happy to help.

While treatment is important, it doesn’t have to be expensive, timely therapist sessions.

The Friendship Benches movement has shown that this issue can be treated quickly and in an inexpensive manner. Hopefully this movement will continue to spread around the world and depression won’t be such a stigmatized issue and dealing with it will be easier than ever.