National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Man’s Best Friend Lives Up to the Name

By Jessica Friedel, NAMI Communications Intern

Although our soldiers are returning home after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade, their battle is far from over.

USA Today recently reported a study conducted by mental health teams from the Army Surgeon General’s Office, which shows that nearly 20 percent of all soldiers report symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Standard treatments for the disorder involve diminishing symptoms with prescription medications or exposure therapy. However, with cases that are resistant to typical methods of treatment, alternative means are being employed.

Veterans are now commonly experimenting with non-traditional treatments such as massage therapy, acupuncture and yoga. Holistic wellness centers, such as the Fort Bliss Restoration and Resilience Center in Fort Bliss, Texas have been set up to help soldiers treat their mental illness both emotionally and spiritually. According to an article in The New York Times, no method of treatment for PTSD has been as popular as service dogs.

Often thought of as providing service to the blind or elderly, service dogs are now helping veterans cope with PTSD in a number of ways. Although there is little scientific evidence showing how or why the dogs alleviate PTSD symptoms, there are studies underway and an abundance of personal stories that show they seem to provide soldiers with comfort and help them cope.

Former Navy officer Tori Stitt told The New York Times that her service golden retriever, Devon, can sense when she is nervous and responds by standing close or putting a paw on her lap. By needing walks, Devon forces her to leave her apartment and possibly interact with people. Stitt also admits to sometimes forgetting to take her medications, but Devon is trained to remind her. Devon’s most important task, however, is to provide Stitt with emotional support.

In fact, pet owners in general are less likely to suffer from depression and high blood pressure than those without pets. Some studies have shown that one of the reasons pets seem to have such a positive influence on their owners is that they fulfill the basic human need to touch, which quickly manages stress. Additionally, playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.

A 2009 survey conducted by NAMI discovered that about 20 percent of people living with depression have used animal therapy in treatment, with 54 percent finding it "extremely" or "quite a bit" helpful.

However, an Army policy implemented in January limits how soldiers can get service dogs. The new policy mandates that dogs can only be provided by organizations approved by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), which does not have affiliated chapters in 18 states. Soldiers in one of these 18 states have to obtain service dogs elsewhere, which is substantially more difficult and expensive.

Sharan Wilson, executive director of Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) of America, Inc., an ADI-affiliated service dog organization told MSNBC that she believes that the Army policy is an attempt to address problems with unqualified service dog providers. According to Wilson, the Army has to recognize the professionalism of the service dogs to understand that they aren’t like normal pets. It takes between six and nine months to train one of her service dogs.

This policy also requires soldiers to seek eligibility for a service dog from their commander and a panel of health-care professionals. Fort Bliss recently implemented a policy that requires soldiers to exhaust all other treatment options before applying for a service dog. These policies started being issued after a six-year-old boy was attacked and killed by a service dog at Fort Campbell, Ky. on Jan. 29.

Former U.S. Army Captain and service dog owner of four years, Luis Montalvan told The Daily Mail that he understands the fervor to ensure that safety standards are met when it comes to the training of service dogs, but feels the new policy is too narrow and has left many soldiers “without the means of recuperating.”

Matt Kuntz, executive director of NAMI Montana, has launched an online petition calling on Secretary of the Army John McHugh to revise the new policy. “For some soldiers, access to their service dogs may be the difference between life and death by suicide” writes Kuntz. Just over five years ago, Kuntz lost his step-brother to a suicide that was a consequence of injuries he sustained while serving in Iraq.

A middle ground will hopefully be reached between the need to ensure the dogs are properly trained while still being able to provide them in a timely manner to the many soldiers who are requesting them.