Effect of the Friendship Bench intervention on antiretroviral therapy outcomes and mental health symptoms in rural Zimbabwe: A cluster randomized trial

medRxiv. 2023 Jan 22:2023.01.21.23284784. doi: 10.1101/2023.01.21.23284784. Preprint


Importance: Common mental disorders (CMD) are prevalent in people living with HIV and associated with suboptimal antiretroviral therapy (ART) adherence.

Objective: To assess the effect of a lay health worker-led psychological intervention on adherence to ART, virologic suppression and mental health symptoms.

Design: Pragmatic cluster trial with block randomization of health facilities. Treatment assignment was known to participants, providers, evaluators, and data analysts. Recruitment started in October 2018 and the last follow-up visit was done in December 2020. Participants were followed up for 12 months.

Setting: Sixteen public health care facilities in Bikita, a rural district in Masvingo Province, about 300 km south of Harare.

Participants: Men and non-pregnant women aged 18 years or older who spoke English or Shona, screened positive for CMD (Shona Symptoms Questionnaire [SSQ]-14 score ≥9), had received first-line ART for at least six months, had no WHO clinical stage 4 disease, no psychotic symptoms, and gave informed consent.

Intervention: The Friendship Bench, a lay health worker-led intervention consisting of six weekly individual counselling sessions of problem-solving therapy and optional peer-led group support.

Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was Medication Event Monitoring System (MEMS) mean adherence between 2-6 months of follow-up. Secondary outcomes included mean adherence between 1-12 months, change from baseline SSQ-14 and Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) score at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months and change in viral load suppression (viral load <1000 copies per mL) at months 6 and 12.

Results: We recruited 516 participants, 244 in Friendship bench and 272 in standard care facilities. The mean age was 45.6 years (SD 10.9), and most participants were women (84.9%). In the Friendship Bench group, 88.1% of participants attended all six individual counselling sessions. Rates of adherence (>85%) and virologic suppression (>90%) were high in both groups. The intervention had no statistically significant effect on adherence or viral suppression. Declines in SSQ-14 scores from baseline to 3 months (-1.65, 95% CI -3.07 to -0.24), 6 months (-1.57, 95% CI -2.98 to -0.15), and 9 months (-1.63, 95% CI -3.05 to -0.22) were greater in the Friendship Bench than the standard care group (p<0.05). There were no differences in the decline in the SSQ-14 scores from baseline to 12 months and in declines in PHQ-9 scores from baseline to 3, 6, 9, and 12 months.

Conclusions and relevance: The Friendship Bench intervention is a feasible and acceptable approach to closing the treatment gap in mental health care in rural Zimbabwe. The intervention improved CMD symptoms but the intervention effect was smaller than previously shown in an urban setting. The intervention had no effect on adherence and viral suppression, possibly due to the absence of skill-based adherence training and ceiling effect.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT03704805.

Key points: Question: Does the Friendship Bench intervention improve antiretroviral therapy (ART) adherence, viral suppression and mental health symptoms in people living with HIV in rural Zimbabwe?Findings: In this cluster-randomized trial, participants in the intervention group had a significantly greater decrease in symptoms of common mental disorders than those in the control group, but the intervention showed no significant effect on antiretroviral therapy (ART) adherence or viral suppression.Meaning: The intervention did not affect adherence and viral suppression and the effect of the intervention on mental health symptoms was smaller than previously shown.

Publication types

  • Preprint

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT03704805