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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

Building Community to Heal Depression: Yoga-Driven Solution Inspired by African Program

Natural Awakenings recently spoke with Deb Clelland, a Naam yoga instructor in the greater Danbury area, about an initiative she is passionate about: building community to help support those struggling with depression and social disconnection.
When did you become concerned about depression in young people?
Last year a young girl in my neighborhood, around 11 or 12 years old, walked my dog for me after school. She did this for the whole school year. One day in June, I received a text from her saying, “I cannot walk Oscar anymore.”

I texted back, “Is everything okay?” She responded, “My best friend committed suicide and I’m too sad to work.”

The summer passed and I heard from her again in September, saying she felt better and wanted to walk Oscar again, and I agreed. Then, one Friday in October, she didn’t show up. I texted her several times to see if she was okay. Finally, on Sunday she responded: “I’m sorry I didn’t let you know I couldn’t walk Oscar on Friday, but they took my phone away from me when I was in the hospital.” I asked what was wrong, and she texted, “Just my depression.”
Another month passed, then again, one Friday, she was a no-show. I texted her and her mother. No answer. I called several times, but there was no answer over the weekend or ever. I feel that I would have heard if something tragic had happened, but there has been no neighborhood news. And so, I pray.

How did you first discover the Friendship Bench program?
On TEDx, I heard a psychiatrist from Zimbabwe, Dixon Chibanda, present a talk entitled, “Why I train grandmothers to treat depression.” He spoke about the increase in depression and suicide rates in his country; that 300 million people in the world suffer from depression; and every
40 seconds, someone commits suicide. The biggest increase has occurred in people ages 15 to 29.

In Zimbabwe, there are only 12 psychiatrists for 14 million people so Chibanda wanted to find a way to help an underserved population. He came up with the idea of training grandmothers (in
Zimbabwe, they never leave their communities) to sit on community benches and talk to anyone who sat down and wanted to talk. They wear a uniform—yellow aprons and red berets—so they are recognizable. They call the program “The Friendship Bench.” The grandmothers are trained in evidence-based talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and activity therapy, and they are supported with technology. The first group of grandmothers went to work in 2006. Since then, 30,000 people have received treatment, and six months after receiving treatment, participating individuals have shown better outcomes than those who were treated by doctors for depression.

Why do you think the 
program was successful? 
In the United States, the rate of suicide has tripled for 10- to 24-year-olds; it increased 27 percent between 2007 and 2017. This increase is attributed to abuse in the home, substance abuse and lack of community which provides social support. In September 2019, the founder of Naam Yoga, Dr. Joseph Michael Levry, visited New York City. He spoke about the epidemic of suicide in young people and warned that it will get worse before it gets better. He said the underlying reason is lack of community and encouraged us all to do whatever we can to build community.

Early intervention can be lifetime intervention. Children need to be taught coping strategies.

Did you feel moved to take some action at that point? 
Yes, I reached out to Eileen Earle at Bethel Parks and Recreation and pitched the idea of starting a Naam Yoga Community Class on Sundays, with the proceeds of the class going to help build community. She enthusiastically replied, “YES!” and guided me on how to get everything rolling.

How can community 
members get involved?
We’d love for them to attend the class and help us build a more supportive community! A donation of $10 per person or $20 per family is suggested, and we’ll use that money to support our local community. Perhaps we can donate a Friendship Bench or two!

Deb Clelland’s Naam Yoga Community Class takes place from 11am to 12:15pm
every second Sunday of the month (March 8, April 19 (Easter is the second Sunday), May 10 and June 14. Location: Bethel Municipal Center, 1 School St, Bethel.
Deadline: The 12th of the month. Contact [email protected] for cheerful and efficient help with your marketing!


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