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The “Different” Mental Health Worker

The affection of man’s best friend helped me to survive and face a better day…  

By Dennis Anderson

Many people have made their life’s work, or at least have committed part of their lives to becoming mental health professionals, and volunteers. For those of us striving for mental health, along with our friends and family, we are grateful to them for their dedication.

There are, however, others that help – and sometimes a very great deal – which have no mental health training, no drugs to disseminate, or cognitive therapy to impart. But because of their natural dedication, unquestioning love, and non-judgmental nature, they can sometimes help more than the hard-working people in the mental health community.

These “others” usually have four legs or sometimes even a beak. One of the great ironies of humanity, is that sometimes the human ability to develop complex language to communicate makes it more difficult for our true feelings to be clearly understood. We all know there are a number of ways to interpret “I love you” or even “I hate you.” Our intricate social system dictates modes of dress, ways of speaking, and a system ofacting with which to “judge” people.  This can increase our insecurity and our lack offeelings of worthiness. When we need to see a positive reflection of ourselves, we need to understand why we are worth something and are cared for.

This writer is one of those people who tries to volunteer to help others with mental health challenges, but I know that for many, an animal can do more than I am able to. I know this for a fact because my suicide attempt that occurred decades ago was stopped by a dog.

I was a youth that had a less than an ideal childhood. Unfortunately, there still are, and were too many of us. At the age of eleven, I was convinced that I was worthless and that no one loved me. Life was hell and any view of a future seemed blurry and without any enticement. The sorry state of my mental health meant I could not tell the difference between the nightmares of sleep and the true horror of being awake.

I remember watching a TV show showing a woman who killed herself by jumping off a bridge. The peaceful flowing water appealed to me – especially the peaceful part – and I packaged up what little there was of my life. I went to a nearby bridge, determined that the pain would end.

Luckily for me, the household German Sheppard tagged along, and as I put my foot on the rail of the bridge to jump, Sally pulled at my pant leg and tore my jeans. I looked down to yell at her and suddenly realized that something cared if I lived or died.

This began my new sense of reality. Now, I knew when I was awake because Sally was there to stand beside me, no matter what daylight brought. She showed me affection and I began to know that it was night time when I was without her.

For many, just having the affection of an animal keeps them stable, and some would say sane. It is true that for others more is needed. That is why some 16 years ago I started the Chemo Project named after the dog that helped me through 14 years of political life. The program developed ways our mental health practitioners and volunteers, along with animal friends, could help those with mental health challenges.

Others are also doing great work based on this concept. The Dream Catcher program headed by psychologist Eileen Bona is one. The Northern Alberta Pet Therapy Society and equine therapy are others in the Edmonton area, and still more are scattered around the world.

For some, life has not given them an affinity for animals. No approach or therapy will work for all, but I encourage everyone to look at both two and four-legged friends for support. Even today, for me, no matter what title or honour I hold, coming home to embrace one of my feline friends gives me more of a feeling of love and worth than almost anything else.

Dennis Anderson is a former Alberta Cabinet Minister, current Consul General for Thailand and mental health advocate. He is a Director of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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