Background: There is limited evidence that interventions for depression and other common mental disorders (CMD) can be integrated sustainably into primary health care in Africa. We aimed to pilot a low-cost multi-component 'Friendship Bench Intervention' for CMD, locally adapted from problem-solving therapy and delivered by trained and supervised female lay workers to learn if was feasible and possibly effective as well as how best to implement it on a larger scale.
Method: We trained lay workers for 8 days in screening and monitoring CMD and in delivering the intervention. Ten lay workers screened consecutive adult attenders who either were referred or self-referred to the Friendship Bench between July and December 2007. Those scoring above the validated cut-point of the Shona Symptom Questionnaire (SSQ) for CMD were potentially eligible. Exclusions were suicide risk or very severe depression. All others were offered 6 sessions of problem-solving therapy (PST) enhanced with a component of activity scheduling. Weekly nurse-led group supervision and monthly supervision from a mental health specialist were provided. Data on SSQ scores at 6 weeks after entering the study were collected by an independent research nurse. Lay workers completed a brief evaluation on their experiences of delivering the intervention.
Results: Of 395 potentially eligible, 33 (8%) were excluded due to high risk. Of the 362 left, 2% (7) declined and 10% (35) were lost to follow-up leaving an 88% response rate (n = 320). Over half (n = 166, 52%) had presented with an HIV-related problem. Mean SSQ score fell from 11.3 (sd 1.4) before treatment to 6.5 (sd 2.4) after 3-6 sessions. The drop in SSQ scores was proportional to the number of sessions attended. Nine of the ten lay workers rated themselves as very able to deliver the PST intervention.
Conclusion: We have found preliminary evidence of a clinically meaningful improvement in CMD associated with locally adapted problem-solving therapy delivered by lay health workers through routine primary health care in an African setting. There is a need to test the effectiveness of this task-shifting mental health intervention in an appropriately powered randomised controlled trial.
Trial registration: ISRCTN: ISRCTN25476759.