I am a psychotherapist in private practice, and I incorporate many complimentary healing modalities: I teach QiGong and other stress reduction and relaxation techniques to people and their animals. Some of these techniques include mindfulness meditation, visualization, and breathing techniques. Staying in the moment is so critical when the past intrudes or future instills eruptions of pain, anxiety, and the like.
My story begins in the mid-1990s when the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted. ADA established that those severely limited in their ability to function due to mental illness were qualified for psychiatric service dogs (PSDs). It was just about that time when I started to incorporate the use of shelter or rescue dogs as PSDs into my practice. My clients' lives were transformed. They were able to lead independent, full lives that they hadn't been able to experience previously. Even though they continued to struggle with severe limitations, having trained dogs by their sides allowed them to return to work full-time, go back to school, shop for groceries by themselves and give back to society in ways they had never imagined.
In 2013, Healing Companions, Inc., a non-profit organization was founded to serve mentally ill people across the country by providing information about and access to PSDs. We train PSDs to meet the needs of individuals in order to mitigate the effects of their symptoms. Depending on the individual's disability, PSDs are trained tasks such as guiding a handler disoriented by anxiety, conducting a room search to alleviate fear of intruders or the unknown, providing assistance in locating an individual's car when dissociating, interrupting a panic attack, obsessive compulsive behavior or nightmares.
Although some people may be familiar with the use of PSDs for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress, fewer people are familiar with the effectiveness of incorporating PSDs into the care of people struggling with a broader range of mental illness, including eating, anxiety, depression, bipolar, dissociative and identity disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older -- about one in four adults -- suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year." Yet, less than a third of adults dealing with mental disorders receive treatment. The costs of medical care are largely responsible for this, as mental disorders rank among the top 5 most costly medical conditions in the US in a ranking by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Data from National Alliance on Mental Illness shows that access to medical treatment has become increasingly restricted as states across the nation severely decreased the budgets for their mental health agencies since 2009. The economic costs of untreated mental illnesses cost the American public billions of dollars every year.
A variety of treatment methods using psychoactive drugs or psychological therapy are available, but many individuals continue to suffer. Thomas Insel, NIMH director, has stated that "for too many people, antipsychotics and antidepressants are not effective, and even when they are helpful, they reduce symptoms without eliciting recovery."
Sadly, PSDs are not covered under medical insurance and most people who can benefit from a PSD have limited resources.
Finally, I want to share a client's thoughts: "My name is Tracy and my service dog's name is Finola. She was rescued from Hurricane Katrina. Finola helps me live a more productive life. She helps me go to the grocery store, bank, and other places away from our home. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I have many symptoms that go along with PTSD. Finola was trained to help me with my panic attacks. Without Finola I would be house bound. Finola is almost 9 years old and ready to retire so I have started training my new service dog in training (He also came from a shelter. He got his basic training at the local prison). His name is MJ."
All of this has culminated in the writing of my book, "Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power To Transform Lives." The high demand of those struggling with mental illness benefitting from a psychiatric service dog has become apparent.
My work and passion as a psychotherapist is to eradicate the stigma in our society surrounding mental illness. We need to share stories that expose that those with mental illness live productive, independent lives filled with integrity, joy, struggles and courage. We place shelter dogs with those with mental illness as psychiatric service dogs giving both the dog and human productive, independent lives. A win-win situation transforming the lives of so many.
To learn more about Healing Companions, Inc. and PSDs, please go to www.healing-companions.com