Serious Mental Illness (SMI) Population – Can Therapy Dogs Help?

Eager to learn more, my initial research easily found studies in which AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) was proven to be an effective method of working with the mentally ill. This week I wanted to explore further for more specific cases, recently, in which AAT significantly helped to improve the lives of the SED/SMI population. (Severe Emotional Disturbance/Serious Mental Illness).

I currently work as a social worker in Nevada primarily with Medicaid recipients who fall in the category of the SED/SMI population and those struggling with addiction. Typically the latest treatment approaches include Long Acting Injectable Medications for psychotic disorders or Vivitrol for severe opioid/ETOH addicts. I often struggle to help those in need due to the stigma associated with psychiatric medication. Many of the individuals I work with are highly resistant to mental health treatment or are historically non-compliant with medications. This typically results in frequent inpatient psychiatric admissions, homelessness, loss of jobs, etc.

Serious mental illness is significantly more prevalent in our society than perhaps people realize or care to know. This data image was recently reported by the American Addiction Centers reporting just how many Americans are struggling with these type of disorders.


I was curious if alternative treatment approaches in tandem with traditional approaches such as  medication management could assist the population I serve every day.

Immediately my online searches yielded very recent articles and studies reporting the benefits of this treatment approach from reputable organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association as well as a recent article reported by NPR. I even located an entire research center at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine dedicated to researching the benefits of Human-Animal Interaction.

Check out the links below for some interesting reads/information:

Additionally  Northwell Health  recently posted a video within the last year about how Therapy Dogs are assisting in the treatment of their patients currently admitted to their psychiatric units.  See the video below. Fascinating Stuff !

Overall- it is clear that there are significant benefits to using AAT in working with the serious mental illness population and helping them to become more engaged and receptive to the treatment process, ease anxiety, and lift mood.




One comment

  1. So exactly how are therapy dogs trained to assist severe mental illness patients.

    I’ve seen cases where they have been used when patients have seizures and the animals learn the signs and respond accordingly, but how can a dog detect bi-polar disorder for instance and what would they do to counteract that?


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