Mental illness … those two words seem to trigger such a vast array of reactions… Some people are very accepting and understanding, whereas other people think that the whole concept is fictitious. After all, if mental illness occurs in the brain, then why can’t you simply think your way out of it?
I only wish it was that simple!
Now if you had asked me my thoughts on mental illness 6 years ago I would be giving you a very different story to what I am now! Yes, I still knew and acknowledged that it existed, however really had no empathy or real understanding of it. In a nutshell, I just thought that some people weren’t mentally tough enough! So what changed?
I broke. The ‘Black Dog’ bit me on the bum and I went down like a sack of potatoes.
There was a lead up to my breakdown, however like many people I just kept on telling myself that I was okay and to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and all would be fine. Part of me was telling myself that I should be stronger than this. I wasn’t … no one is.
What helped me through my own journey with mental illness and to successfully emerge out the other side was using similar tools to those that I use when working with our companion animals; medication, environmental interventions and behavioural modification (cognitive behavioural therapy).
Yes, you read that right; mental illness occurs in our companion animals too.
Now you think that mental illness in humans has a stigma attached? Try working in the field of mental health in animals! But why wouldn’t animals suffer from mental illness? After all, they have a brain too.
Diagnosis of mental illness is not my department. My role as a trainer is to know the difference between a training problem and a behavioural problem and to use all the tools available to help the client reach their end goal as quickly as possible. Often one of these tools is to refer on to a Veterinary Behaviourist so the dog can be screened for mental illness.
Personally, I feel that far too many behavioural problems that occur due to mental illness are overlooked or blamed on something else; it’s the owner’s fault, the dogs ‘dominant’ or naughty, they just need to be trained better, they’ll grow out of it, it’s in the breed …
So are we seeing an increase in mental illness in our companion animals? In my opinion, yes! Why?
Behaviour is a mix of genetics, past experience and environment:
• Is it because we have selectively bred for companionship however now leave our dogs for longer periods on their own?
• Is it because we have selectively bred for good work ethic and drive and now provide limited to no outlets for this?
• Is it because our intelligent dogs are now left with too much time with nothing to do?
• Is it because some people who breed are focusing on aesthetics and forgetting about mental health?
• Is it the increase of puppy farms and the environment in which they are raised?
• Is it because our expectations of what we require from our animals has changed?
• Is it because we put the dogs into more environments that nurture some forms of anxiety; such as dog parks, cafes, busy beaches, etc.
So what can we do to help? Just like mental illness in humans, the earlier the detection the better the prognosis. Sometimes mental illness can be worked through using environmental interventions and behavioural modification whereas other times medication is warranted. Each case is individual.
So if you feel that your companion animal may be suffering from mental illness you may be right!
We can certainly help!