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Animals As Therapy in Mental Health
Conference – 16th May


The State Hospital, Carstairs in Scotland was the venue for the recent conference on Animals As Therapy in Mental Health writes Maureen Hennis, Director of Pets As Therapy.

Delegates attended from Hospitals, Prisons, Probation Services as well as Universities, Colleges and Pets As Therapy. This was the first conference of its kind in the U.K.

Thomas Reid BSc (Forensic Nursing) RMN welcomed everyone to the State Hospital in his role as Manager of Patient Activity and Recreational Services. This hospital provides treatment and care in conditions of special security for individuals with mental disorder who, because of their dangerous, violent or criminal propensities, cannot be cared for in any other setting.

Alexandra More, Unit Team Leader and Aileen Galt, Rehabilitation Instructor both spoke about animals as therapy at the State Hospital and were both totally convinced of the benefits of animals at the hospital.

This was followed by Elizabeth Ormerod, Veterinary Surgeon and Chairperson of SCAS who spoke on the History of Companion Animals in Mental Health. The use of animals in therapy is certainly not a new idea it goes back many hundreds of years and it has always been found that animals increased communication, reduced tenseness, improved trust and made patients smile.

Animal Assisted Therapy : A catalyst for Change was the subject for Tracey Brannan, a Social Worker with the Essex Mental Health Team. Tracey was accompanied by her two registered PAT dogs Gem and Chip. Tracey was instrumental in setting up a dog walking group for service users. This has proved to be extremely successful and delegates were shown a number of photographs which showed the joy that this service is bringing. Patients can either bring their own dogs along to go walking or they can simply accompany other members of the group and be in amongst the dogs.

There followed a tour of the hospital's Pine Grove Gardens and the Animal Therapy Centre. The gardens including greenhouses, pools complete with goldfish and beautiful plants are all grown and tended by the patients. The Animal Therapy Centre was a delight with Chipmunks, birds, Guinea Pigs, Rabbits etc., all of which are looked after very successfully by the patients. These animals along with the visiting dog bring comfort, love and companionship to the patients, many of whom are non-communicative until they have contact with the animals.

Projects

Back in the conference centre Alison Murray, lecturer from Myerscough College spoke on the Winston Churchill Fellowship and the research she undertook on her trip to the U.S.A. visiting several projects concerned with Animal Assisted Therapy in Seattle, Washington, Denver, Colorado, Utah State, California, New York and Philadelphia. The applications of AAT were in Prisons, Residential care settings for elderly people, children and mental health.

A twenty year old programme in Purdy Women's Correctional Facility in Seattle has received great acclaim. A dog grooming service has been set up along with a programme where the women train service dogs. This has found to reduce recidivism rates and also on many occasions provides employment on release.

Alison also looked at the Animal Welfare Issued e.g. species suitability, environment and the animals needs.

June McNicholas Senior Research Fellow, Health Psychologist at University of Warwick spoke on the Potential Benefits of Animals and on how important it is to obtain research on AAT.
Discussion Groups and Feedback ended a day which it was felt had been so beneficial that it should become an annual event.

I have always been convinced of the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy however one speaker at the conference really confirmed my thoughts. Charles is a patient at the State hospital. He stood in front of a conference room full of professionals and spoke on his life, which is so tragic that I will not go into it in this column and also his subsequent illness which led him to attempt suicide on several occasions, very nearly succeeding. Charles started visiting the small animal unit at the hospital and eventually started caring for the animals.

Charles told us that it was during one of these sessions, while he was cuddling a rabbit that he suddenly realised, this tiny animal trusted him and for the first time in his life he was a carer. This involvement with animals, Charles told us, has given him back his life, totally turning around the way he views things. Here in this charming young man was the proof that Animal Assisted Therapy is a very valuable resource, one which must have a much bigger future in the U.K. today.