Arecent article on The Wall Street Journal website cites that animals are increasingly being used to assist patients with mental disorders, as evidence grows that they can help people with autism, PTSD and other conditions function in their everyday lives.
Shirley S. Wang’s “Rise in Pets as Therapy for Mental Conditions” features Dr. James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, who notes that “the pool of studies that have been done increasingly suggests that animal-assisted techniques can be beneficial.”
“Our six decades of experience treating children with psycho-social issues and incorporating animal-assisted interventions has us convinced of the benefits of human-animal interaction,” says Dr. Steve Klee, associate executive director of clinical and medical services at Green Chimneys. “But Dr. Serpell’s comments truly highlight the need to collect empirical data to support this and create strong practice models for treatment professionals.”
Take for instance. Louis. He’s an 11-year old resident with oppositional defiant disorder. Louis is bright and curious, and excels at connecting with animals. In the classroom setting, it can be difficult for Louis to sit, listen and communicate, and like many children who share this diagnosis, there’s an ongoing struggle with uncooperative and hostile behavior toward authority. Louis is learning how best to manage his behavior. It’s not always easy for Louis to relate to his classmates but when it comes the farm, his pace and language almost immediately shift.
Louis and his social worker often visit the farm where Louis moves swiftly from one stall to the next. He’s fearless yet responsible when interacting with the animals, never intimidated and always mindful of their body language. Louis’ Mr. Doolittle-like disposition makes the farm a safe and exciting playground for him and all of his animal friends. His communication skills and connections with animals evolve more naturally than with some of his classmates. And of all the species on campus, Louis connects with the peacocks in a most special way.
On one particular day, Louis intentionally donned his hood, covering as much of himself in blue to more easily associate with the peacock. And then he began to replicate the peacock call. Ever patient. Watching the bird’s slightest movements. Calling again. And again. And eventually, from the distance, calls from peahens across the way began to echo his call.
Louis’ connections with these feathered and furry friends are a great foundation for communicating with his social worker. Occasionally Louis will project feelings onto an animal or may tell an involved story he’s imagined about an animal, and it allows his social worker the opportunity to explore how this relates to Louis, his day, and how he’s feeling. One of Louis’ goals is to identify and communicate his emotions, and he’s made significant improvement in doing this by utilizing his stuffed animals as a means to convey his feelings. Louis may grab his favorite stuffed animal and say, “Jacksy is upset today. I know how he feels,” and lead a session without being prompted to talk about his day.
This is just one of many ways the Green Chimneys Farm & Wildlife Center is utilized in the span of a resident’s time here. By facilitating these connections, and by supporting such a foundation, they support each of their children in tapping into their unique “call,” to identify with and care for another living being, and to allow the skills built from that special relationship to extend to connections with classmates, Green Chimneys staff and beyond.