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Do animals have a role to play in mental health?

Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is increasingly being used by psychologists, mental health nurses and occupational therapists to help patients with severe mental health conditions.

North Manchester General Hospital has recently been running a pioneering animal therapy programme for men with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Facilitated by Noah's ART, a charity founded by former mental health nurse Sharon Hall, the scheme enables the patients to interact with a range of animals, including dogs, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs and a mouse. The patients are also trained to become volunteers at the charity's drop-in cafe, 'Coffee, Cake & Critters', housed at a local community centre.

The theory behind the programme is simple. As the patients bond with the animals, it helps them to reconnect with living things and be more communicative. "The feedback we've had has been quite magical," said Sharon, who has ten years' mental health nursing experience. "The occupational therapists have told us that some of the men we have on the course never attend any group activities – yet they have come to and really enjoyed the sessions."

The advantages of interacting with animals has been widely known for some time. Research has shown that pet owners experience a range of physical, mental and emotional benefits, from less anxiety to lower blood pressure and less risk of heart attack. 

AAT began in the 1990s, but it's only in recent years that health professionals like mental health nurses, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists have been seriously focusing on its use to help patients with severe mental health issues. As yet there are no formal AAT qualifications in the UK, but in the USA several universities and other institutions offer recognised courses leading to certification or a post-graduate diploma.

Sceptics point to the lack of extensive, robust research about the benefits of AAT. However, there have been some interesting studies carried out. In 2005 a controlled pilot study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics journal tested the hypothesis that AAT may improve anhedonia, an inability to feel pleasure which is a key symptom in schizophrenia and severe depressive disorders. Comparing the effect of treatment with and without a dog in the sessions, the researchers concluded that AAT may contribute to the psychosocial rehabilitation and quality of life of chronic schizophrenia patients.

Another piece of research in the USA showed that patients who spend just 20 minutes with a therapy dog experience a significant drop in stress hormones and an increase in 'health inducing and social inducing' hormones.

One of the UK's pioneering establishments in using AAT for mental health patients is the State Hospital, a secure facility in Scotland which provides treatment and care for up to 240 patients with severe mental disorders. Established in the 1990s, its Garden and Animal Therapy Centre receives around 120 patients each week and the hospital has published a guide for establishing animal therapy in a healthcare setting, Animals as Therapy in Mental Health.

“You can literally see the change in the patients’ demeanour when they come through the door," explained Senior Staff Nurse Ian Russell. "And when we’re out with the animals, it’s simply great to see the enjoyment that patients get. I could talk all day about the therapeutic benefits that animals bring.”

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