Mental health and wellness are part of the human condition. We all share similar emotional responses by nature, but have individually unique body chemistries that dictate the severity of those emotions. This means that any two people experiencing the same situation may have completely different reactions. Genetics, predispositions, and varying perspectives can each play factor. This is what makes it challenging to gauge which feelings are proportional, and which are of greater cause for alarm. The conversation surrounding mental health is an important one. May is “Mental Health Awareness Month”, and we would like to openly share about Service Dogs and suicide prevention.
Clinical depression is one major mental illness that affects people in every age group, including adolescents. Since symptoms display differently in each person, it can also be hard to determine what therapies or interventions will provide relief. Yet if serious depression is ignored, left untreated, treated ineffectively, or even misdiagnosed, the results can be disastrous. The National Center for Health Statistics shows that suicide is a major contributor to premature deaths. It is the second leading cause of mortality in people between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fifth leading cause in people aged 35–54. Those are very sobering facts!
Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
Animals have gained a lot of traction as a holistic accompaniment to treatment plans for those with mental illnesses. Depression, Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and many other conditions show benefits from the loving companionship of a pet. But can they really make a difference when it comes to suicide prevention? Many who are struggling with suicidal ideation feel that their absence won’t matter, and or that their loved ones are better off without them. The simple act of caring for an animal’s day-to-day needs can be an effective distraction from overwhelming thoughts. Having someone who depends on them for food, water, and exercise may help individuals overcome ideas that their life is insignificant. For many struggling, however, what a pet can give may not be enough.
That’s where Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs can make all the difference. Before we examine their usefulness in suicide prevention, we need to have a better understanding of suicide in general.
Suicide is an extremely complicated issue. If you haven’t experienced long lasting or debilitating levels of dread, anguish, alienation, hopelessness, or gloom, it may be hard to understand why some resort to drastic measures. It’s helpful to note that emotional pain works just like physical pain, in the sense that it’s experienced on a sliding scale. Endurance and perception are both huge contributing factors when it comes to how pain levels register. Some may perceive certain stressors as insurmountable or hopeless. It is possible for someone to seem perfectly fine on the outside while inwardly they are battling unknown darkness. Others may not be so great at hiding it. Yet regardless of whether we immediately notice or can relate to someone else’s pain, one thing most of us agree on is that every death is grievous.
As recently as 2018, The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Burden of Disease study estimated close to 800,000 people lost to suicide each year. Let that sink in. Since many suicides go unrecorded (cause of death unknown), these numbers may be even higher! Add COVID-19 to the mix, and its impact on the population’s collective mental health, and it’s clear to see why some may call suicide its own pandemic. While difficult to prove – some demographics saw suicide declines, while others experienced inclines – it doesn’t lessen the obvious need for effective solutions in suicide prevention plans.
It is widely known that suicide rates are high for war veterans suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. U.S. Veterans Magazine says, “About 1 veteran in 6 suffers from PTSD. According to research in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety, 28 percent of those who reported a past traumatic event had attempted suicide. Another study found that those with TBI, which affects about the same portion of veterans, are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide.”
Plenty of research supports the connection between the brain’s four main happiness chemicals and positive boosts in our mood. Increases in our serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphin levels can be achieved through diet, exercise, and physical connection. That’s right – touch has been determined to improve emotions. This is why petting an animal can be beneficial for those who are feeling despondent.
Pet therapy extends beyond simply petting, though. It draws on the connection between the animal and the owner. Whereas other humans love in conditional terms, animals aren’t biased and can love us under any circumstances. Whether at our worst emotionally, physically, or mentally, they view us through impartial eyes. Our bond with them is also said to boost our self-esteem. Increases in confidence can help us to reach out for help when we’re down, rather than suffer in silence because we don’t feel worthy.
Some studies even suggest that dogs (in particular) have the ability to pick up on changing emotions. By reading human body language, they may be able to not only empathize with our changing moods, but learn our quirks and mannerisms when we’re feeling down. What if that’s just not enough, though? What if our mental wellness plan requires a bit more targeted assistance from our four-legged companions? That’s where Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Animals come in!
For those who experience mental health struggles, their pet may be vital for optimal support and functionality. Animals that help relieve a symptom (or symptoms) of their owner’s mental disability can be classified as Emotional Support Animals. ESAs differ from regular pets in the sense that their presence literally provides therapeutic assistance to their owners. Without them, their owner would be at a significantly higher risk for negative mental health manifestations. ESAs are legally, and appropriately, classified as Assistance Animals. While ESAs don’t need to be expertly trained like Service Animals, they do need an approval letter from a licensed therapist to be legitimately certified.
Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) are specifically task trained to assist with daily functionality. In addition to requirements of task-related mastery, they must grasp (and follow) basic obedience guidelines. Self-training is permitted and does not have to be complicated, but it will take some time and dedication to achieve the desired results. There are flexible methods, reliable online resources, and compassionate support communities to help you navigate the process.
You can read more about the differences between ESAs and PSAs in our recent blog post found here.
PSDS offer their owners practical assistance in addition to positive feelings of safety and security. One reason they’re so advantageous is their inherent intuition. When a dog is further trained to help with task specific goals its already innate behaviors prove to be a huge asset. The canine species is instinctively better able to recognize suffering than others, and training can help utilize their pre-wired dispositions. This makes them an asset in suicide prevention, particularly when trained in tasks that interrupt their owner’s self-harming behaviors.
Some of the tasks utilized to interrupt or prevent self-harming behaviors are DPT (Deep Pressure Therapy) and Tactile Stimulation. A PSD can use nudges or gentle pressure across their owner’s body to induce calm, comfort, and encourage breathing exercises for handlers in emotional/mental distress. Typically dogs are trained to respond immediately to specific audio or visual cues. If a PSD encounters any obstacles in reaching or assisting their owner, the dog can also be trained to seek outside help. They do this by pressing an emergency call button or opening the front door to find another human. All of that seems pretty incredible, right? It takes time, dedication, and patience to achieve mastery of these tasks but is 100% worth it when a life is on the line.
Another task that is uself in suicide prevention is medication reminders! At times of deep depressive lows, individuals might not be in the right head space to keep up with prescription pill regimens.
There are plenty of other scenarios to consider as well. The manic stages of bi-polar disorder can create an aversion to a regular routine that is usually acceptable. The intensity of a panic attack may render an individual paralyzed with fear or extremely disoriented. In any case, the insistence of a PSD that their owner take their medication can be life-saving. A PSD might bark incessantly or physically bring a medication bottle to their owner when necessary.
We also wrote more detailed information on how Psychatric Service Dogs can offer help to Veterans.
Not all dogs are suited for a life of service, so it’s important to gauge an individual animal’s overall temperament. Whether you’re considering training your dog as a Service Animal or seeking out one you can own for this purpose, you may find our post on the best PSD breeds beneficial. For more information on what is required for PSD certification, check out our blog post here. If during your personal research, you find that task-training isn’t essential to your overall wellness routine, you’d likely benefit from getting an ESA instead.
As mentioned above, causes of suicide and suicide trends are difficult to pinpoint. This is largely due to both external and internal variables differing per individual. One point of contention when arguing whether Service Dogs can actually lower the suicide rate is the higher rate of suicides among veterinary professionals. Sounds surprising right? I spoke with a personal friend and lifelong professional in the vet industry. Courtney Dowd, a former vet tech who now works as a veterinary receptionist, is currently training her own dog to help with her PTSD. Although she very much believes in the therapeutic value that dogs have to offer, she had this to contribute:
Courtney raises an important point that we should not ignore. Life is full of different challenges, circumstances, environments, and choices. As with most solutions, therapies, or treatments for mental health, there isn’t a one size fits all solution.
Hopefully, in the coming years, there will be a lot more research done on the link between PSD ownership and suicide statistics. For now, we do know that an animal can help boost those happiness hormones. More important to the suicide conversation is that dogs (and mini-horses) can be trained to perform vital tasks which mitigate life-threatening mental health disability symptoms. Also, thankfully Service Animals have public access rights which can include employment accommodations. If necessary, you may be able to have your PSD by your side while on the job.
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
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