32 Friendship Benches installed around Qatar’s World Cup stadiums

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The USA bench designed by Nada Abbara.

Doha: Several Qatar-based artists contributed to the design of the Friendship Benches that were recently launched, ahead of the upcoming FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, including Faras Almeer, Health Policy Research Officer at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH). 

The Friendship Bench project is made up of 32 separate benches that have now been  installed around Qatar’s World Cup stadiums. Each bench represents one of the national teams competing in the tournament and aims to encourage and promote the discussion around mental health. The project is a collaboration between the World Health Organization (WHO), Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), WISH and FIFA. 

WISH took the lead on creating the designs for the 32 benches and, having worked as a freelance artist himself, Almeer spearheaded the project. His unique style uses bold and saturated colours, as well as country-specific iconography. He also worked with a group of patients in recovery at Naufar — a local rehabilitation centre for substance abuse and addiction — and Nada Abbara, an alumna of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU-Q) in Qatar, and a multidisciplinary artist, on the designs.  

“Mental illness does not discriminate based on age, gender or nationality, so it is only fitting that we use the medium of art to address the issue of social and cultural stigma associated with mental health disorders,” says Almeer. 

“Art is a powerful medium that transcends boundaries and allows us to communicate across borders, languages and cultural differences. I believe that designing the friendship benches combines the power of artistic expression with fostering open conversations for mental wellbeing.” 

Having designed the benches representing Australia, South Korea, Japan, Netherlands and Denmark, patients at Naufar appreciated the opportunity to express their own experiences.  “ Substance abuse is  a mental health disorder, and a serious health condition, and those who suffer from it are already riddled with guilt. Therefore, it is imperative to eradicate societal stigmas and shame so that those with mental illnesses and their families can seek the necessary help,” said one of the patients.

“Being a part of this project gave us the chance to contribute towards a significant initiative so that we can share our experiences through art to inspire and support those who are suffering in silence and encourage them to seek help,’’ he added. 

Abbara strongly believes that mental wellbeing can be improved in societies, saying: “Physical ways of communication are vital, because we have been deprived of human connection in recent years. Interestingly, the notion of the bench is not novel because you realize that each one of us has at some point sat down to talk to and connect with family or friends. A friendship bench is indeed a healing bench.” 

Abbara has designed the benches representing countries that include Canada, Brazil and Uruguay, and her designs embody the culture, landmarks, and architecture of each country, taking into consideration the history of those landmarks and what they represent today. 

The global Friendship Bench project, adopted by the WHO, is an evidence-based intervention, first developed in Zimbabwe, to bridge the mental health treatment gap. The project aims to enhance mental wellbeing and improve quality of life through the use of accessible, problem-solving therapy.

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