Animal assisted therapy for young psychiatric patients

July 14, 2016 - Lauren Salvatore Farkas, PsyD

Recently, the staff and patients at Northwell Health’s Early Treatment Program were pleasantly surprised to see a four-legged animal therapist sauntering down the hall: a Newfoundland dog named Sully Molloy. Over 100 pounds of unconditional love, wrapped in a thick coat of fur with a fashionable kerchief around his neck, Sully has one job: to make Early Treatment Program patients smile.  Be sure to watch the video to meet Sully and learn about the benefits of animal assisted therapy.

Northwell Health’s Early Treatment Program for young psychiatric patients is a unique and innovative intervention program for teenagers and young adults who are experiencing psychotic symptoms for the first time, such as:

  • Feeling suspicious or paranoid of others
  • Having unusual thoughts or trouble thinking
  • Unusual or odd behavior
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Hearing or seeing things that others don’t
  • Major changes in eating or sleeping
  • Prolonged periods of feeling “high” or overly happy and outgoing
  • Extreme irritability, agitation, feeling “jumpy” or “wired”

The main objective of the program for young psychiatric patients is to “stop psychosis in its tracks.” Mental health professionals recognize that the beginning stage of a psychotic illness like schizophrenia is a critical time; in fact, studies show that early intervention provides the best chance for reducing symptoms and improving long-term outcomes.

“Animal therapy offers many benefits for patients with psychosis , including helping them to become “re-activated” and more involved in the activities they once enjoyed,” says Dr. Lauren Salvatore Farkas, Psy.D, an Early Treatment Program psychologist. “Animal therapy gives them a great way to re-engage in activities with other people in the program and just have fun,” she explains.

A short history of animal therapy

Animal therapy for psychiatric patients actually began with Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis. Trained as a neurologist, Dr. Freud was more interested in how the mind stored memories and emotions. He opened his private practice as a psychoanalyst in the late 1800s and often brought his dog into sessions with him. Due to his patients’ positive reactions, he realized that his dog was providing a special kind of complementary, therapeutic support.

Since then, animal assisted therapy for young psychiatric patients has been used in a far-reaching range of therapeutic situations with young children, adolescents, adults and the elderly. Horses have been shown to help victims of trauma, birds have helped people deal with anxiety, and dogs continue to show us why they’ve earned and still hold the title of man’s best friend.

Northwell Health’s Early Treatment Program is modeled after the National Institute of Mental Health’s early psychosis initiative and is available at two convenient locations:

The Zucker Hillside Hospital
75-59 263rd Street
Glen Oaks, New York 11004
(718) 470-8888

Lenox Hill Hospital
100 East 77th Street
New York, NY 10075
(212) 434-2830

Making the first call

Whether you're experiencing symptoms yourself or searching for help for a friend or family member, confronting mental illness can be hard. But the sooner care starts, the sooner recovery can begin.

To reach out, call (718) 470-8888 or (212) 434-2830 or email us.