World Mental Health Day has many different meanings to many different kinds of people. You likely develop an image in your mind as soon as seeing the phrase “mental health,” whether it involves someone you know, or personal experience with the subject.
At K9s For Warriors, we naturally relate the term to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a debilitating – and invisible – mental health disorder. Our mission is to train service dogs to specifically assist military veterans suffering from PTSD. The PTSD in those who go through our national service dog training program results from either isolated or repeated exposure to traumatic events within the course of their military service.
“I was blown up in an IED attack.”
“I saw my best friend get shot and killed.”
“I got a traumatic brain injury when my armored vehicle rolled over in an accident.”
“I was sexually assaulted by one of my fellow service members.”
Unfortunately, these are common quotes from our warriors. It is shocking events like these that often lead to PTSD, the definition of which is “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”1
The examples in the definition are the exact type of events our military personnel are subject to, and what all the veterans in our program have gone through. (Note: We respectfully acknowledge that anyone may experience PTSD during their lifetime. Since our mission is to help veterans with the disorder, that is our focus of this blog post.)
We always hear our veterans say that life is never the same with PTSD as it was before. After the traumatic events are over, the psychologically and physiologically effects remain. This means that everyday places, sights and sounds might not be so “everyday” anymore. Instead, they can become “triggers” for PTSD symptoms.
For example, crowds make veterans anxious if they can’t see exactly what’s going on in every moment or see exits. For a service member, if you can’t see everything going on around you in a foreign area, it means you can’t see potential threats. Other triggers include people screaming, the smell of fire or smoke, or sounds involving fireworks, gun shots or explosions.
How Service Dogs Help
K9s For Warriors’ mission is to help veterans heal from the severe effects of PTSD through highly trained service dogs. Service dogs are now proven to help reduce PTSD symptoms, therefore improving the mental health of the veterans they are paired with. How do they do that? This chart shows some real-life examples of their impact:
Not only do we know service dogs help veterans in all these astounding ways, but our research with Purdue University has proven it! Since 2018, researchers from the OHAIRE Lab at Purdue University of Veterinary Medicine have published three studies in peer-reviewed medical journals about the efficacy of our service dogs with veterans. Their findings include that service dogs cause:
- Lower overall symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress
- Lower levels of depression
- Higher levels of life satisfaction
- Higher overall psychological well-being
- Lower levels of social isolation and greater ability to participate in social activities
- Less absenteeism from work due to health among those who were employed
- Regulated cortisol levels (the “stress” hormone)
- Greater bond than a traditional human-pet relationship
The studies aren’t stopping there. The National Institutes of Health is working on the next phase to bring us more proof that we’re helping veterans manage and reduce PTSD symptoms with loving service dogs trained just for them.
The disappointing truth is that there is no cure for PTSD, as is the case with most mental health disorders. But the promising news is we have a proven, realistic tool to help: service dogs who enable veterans to reintegrate into society and regain some of their independence.
If you are a post-9/11 veteran diagnosed with PTSD and want to apply to our program for a service dog, click here.
1. American Psychiatric Association. (2019). What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd