Mental Health Practitioners Go to the Dogs
Air Date: Week of June 26, 1998
The idea that bringing plants and animals into clinics and hospitals can make patients happier and healthier is gaining ground in the field of mental health. Advocates of "animal-assisted" therapy say contact with animals can help draw out severely withdrawn patients and help calm down the violent ones. There are plenty of anecdotes about the positive effects of animals on psychiatric patients, but few long term studies proving it works. Still, the number of animal-assisted therapy programs is growing. Nancy Cohen reports on a program in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, that's sprung up without funding or staff training, but with a strong conviction that animals can help people heal.
KNOY: The idea that bringing plants and animals into clinics and hospitals can make patients happier and healthier is gaining ground in the field of mental health. Advocates of "animal-assisted" therapy say contact with animals can help draw out severely withdrawn patients and help calm down the violent ones. There are plenty of anecdotes about the positive effects of animals on psychiatric patients, but few long-term studies proving it works. Still, the number of animal-assisted therapy programs is growing. Nancy Cohen reports on one in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, that's sprung up without funding or staff training, but with a strong conviction that animals can help people heal.
(Sounds of birds chirping)
COHEN: There are nearly as many animals and plants as there are patients at the Berkshire Medical Center's partial hospitalization program for psychiatric care. There's a chinchilla, a hedgehog, two lovebirds, a guinea pig, a tank full of fish, a finch, a rat and a frog. But the most esteemed member of the hospital's menagerie is a dog named Molly. She's a docile, but friendly chow-lab mix, who sports her own hospital photo I.D., signed with a paw print. She's often found sprawled on the floor, being petted by a patient.
PATIENT: This is Molly's favorite position, huh Molly. Molly just wants to be loved.
COHEN: Many patients like this 31-year-old woman say Molly's not only lovable, but intuitive. Even clinicians here say Molly has a kind of a sixth sense when it comes to knowing when someone needs attention. Kathy Gideon is a therapist at Berkshire and the unofficial guardian of the animals. She recalls one incident when a patient was out of control and Molly got there ahead of the staff.
GIDEON: By the time we came back in Molly was sitting there with her paw on the person's leg and the patient who had fetched me said, "I don't know what it is, but Molly always knows." (She laughs) The patient did calm down, we did talk it through, he did maintain control and went home that evening, but the intervention was certainly facilitated by Molly's intervention.
COHEN: At Berkshire Medical the use of animals is informal. There's no official budget for the program, animals aren't included in treatment plans, and the staff has no training in using pets in therapy. But clinicians here say pets can serve as catalysts for their patients who sometimes talk through an animal rather than directly to the therapist. They say because pets can provide a sense of unconditional love many times it feels safer for a patient, who is withdrawn or depressed, to reach out, start to trust and open up to an animal.
(Sound of Molly's collar jingling)
GIDEON: Come on, Superdog.
COHEN: About once a week Kathy Gideon takes Molly to visit patients in the hospital's intensive care psychiatric unit.
(Sound of door closing)
COHEN: On a previous visit to the I.C.U., Molly interacted with a patient who, up until then spoke only in whispers and avoided all eye contact with people. But after the dog left the ward, the patient, a young man, showered, got dressed, and asked when Molly would visit again. Today, a few weeks and a few visits later, he quietly greets the dog.
YOUNG MAN: Hi Molly. How you doin'?
COHEN: Kathy Gideon says this patient's interest in Molly seems to have helped him emerge from his withdrawn state. Today he felt well enough to speak to me, a complete stranger, about the dog.
YOUNG MAN: It's pretty good, it's like a, like a therapy kind of dog. It helps people out when they need help. She notices that you're there. She notices when you're feeling bad and when you're feeling good.
COHEN: Although this patient and many therapists say animals are helpful in psychiatric settings, there's little scientific data to back up these claims. There is research that shows a person's blood pressure or heart rate can go down if they're petting a dog. And there are numerous studies showing mental health improvements after contact with animals. The problem is most studies looked at a small number of subjects for a short period of time and didn't control for those elements that could confuse the outcome of the research. Dr. Cindy Wilson is a public health researcher at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
WILSON: We don't know if it's the animal or if it's the person that brought the animal to the room, because there's so many things that could factor into that. It's difficult to say the animal did it, the animal made the patient better.
COHEN: Many in the animal-assisted therapy field say that until scientists figure out if it is the animal that makes people better, there'll be little respect or funding for this type of medical intervention. Maureen Fredrickson of the Delta Society, a Washington-state-based group dedicated to promoting the health benefits of animals, says long-term, in-depth studies could help clinicians make even better use of animals.
FREDRICKSON: The potential for this field is great and I don't think we are going to realize the potential unless we have some hard empirical data behind us so that the programs have the same respect as more traditional forms of treatment.
COHEN: Maureen Fredrickson says the notion that humans can benefit from contact with animals and plants, a concept known as Biophilia, deserves consideration by the medical community.
FREDRICKSON: I think we have equated living with nature as being primitive and savage and we continue to pull ourselves away from those kinds of relationships in an attempt to say we're civilized if we live in cement and concrete. And I think that's where we've gotten lost on this journey. We've been lured by high technology is going to save humanity. And I think we have the tools for humanity and it might be living in our backyard.
COHEN: Despite the fact that using pets in health care settings is not fully credentialed or accepted, today there are about 2,500 programs in the U.S. alone that actively use animals in a wide variety of therapeutic settings. Those clinicians who embrace pets as a psychiatric intervention tool say its because animals are animals and not human that make them so helpful. They say it's the non-judging, unconditional attention of some pets that can help people heal. For Living On Earth, I'm Nancy Cohen.
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