This time of the year brings a lot of changes to the usual day-to-day life of hundreds of millions of people: The weather is colder, trees are naked, snowy days become plentiful and friendly critters are less visible around the neighborhood. Especially in the Western Hemisphere, this time of the year is also linked to a lot of joyous celebrations and traditions. Most children and many adults have been excited for this time of the year to come for months, and they love the aura of celebrations, with their gatherings, gifts, cookies, emails and cards.
Alas, there are also millions who have to deal with darker emotions as the world literally darkens around them.
The holiday blues – that feeling of being in a lower or more anxious mood amid the significant change in our environment and the multitude of stressors that the holidays can bring – is a phenomenon that is yet to be researched thoroughly. However, as academic psychiatrists and neuroscience researchers, we have seen how several factors contribute to this experience.
Why feel blue in the red and green season?
There are many reasons to feel stressed or even downright overwhelmed during this time of year, in addition to the expectations set around us.
Memories of holidays past, either fond or sad, can create a sense of loss this time of year. We may find ourselves missing people who are no longer with us, and carrying on the same traditions without them can be a strong reminder of their absence.
The sense of burden or obligation, both socially or financially, can be significant. We can get caught up in the commercial aspects of gift giving, wanting to find that perfect item for family and friends. Many set their sights on special gifts, and we often can feel stretched thin trying to find a balance between making our loved ones happy and keeping our bank accounts from being in the black.
It’s also a time for gathering with those close to us, which can stir up many emotions, both good and bad. Some may find themselves away from or without close connections and end up isolated and withdrawn, further disconnected from others. On the other hand, many people find themselves feeling overwhelmed by the combination of potlucks and Secret Santas stacking up through multiple invitations, be it at school, work, or from friends and family – leaving us with the difficult position of not wanting to disappoint others, while not getting totally depleted by all the constant socializing.
People often feel disappointed when reality does not meet expectations. The larger the mismatch, the worse the negative feelings. One of us (Arash) often finds himself telling his patients: Childhood fairy tales can set an unrealistic bar in our minds about life. I wish we were told more real stories, taking the bad with the good, as we would get hurt less when faced with difficult realities of life, and learn how to especially appreciate our good fortunes.
These days viewers are showered with Christmas and New Year’s Eve movies, almost all of which sound and feel like fairy tales. People get married, get rich, fall in love or reconnect with their loved ones. Even unhappy events within “A Christmas Carol” conclude with a happy ending. These all, besides exposure to only happy moments and beautiful gifts (courtesy of Santa), dazzling Christmas decorations, and picturesque family scenes on social media, often set an unrealistic expectation for how this time of the year “should” feel.
Reality is different, though, and at its best is not always as colorful. There may be disagreements about hows, wheres, whats and whos of the celebration, and not all family members, friends and relatives get along well at parties. And as we feel lonelier, we may find ourselves spending more time immersed in TV and social media, leading to more exposure to unrealistic views of the holidays and feeling all the worse about our situation.
When is blue a red flag?
While many experience the more transient “holiday blues” this time of year, it is important not to miss more serious conditions like seasonal mood changes, which in its most severe case leads to clinical depression, including Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD consists of episodes of depression or a worsening of existing depression during the late fall and early winter. The person may feel depressed and hopeless, or they may find it difficult to focus, sleep, or be motivated – they can even feel suicidal. As our emotions can color our thoughts and memories, a depressed person may remember more negative memories, have a more negative perception and interpretation of the events, and feel upset about the holidays.
In such cases, the sadness is “coincident” with the holidays and not caused solely by its circumstances. It is important to seek professional help with SAD, as we have effective treatments available, such as medications and light therapy.
What to do to minimize the blues?
Set realistic expectations: One readily available strategy is simply reframing the beliefs we have about what the holidays “should” be like. Not all parties will go perfectly. Some decorations may break, or kids may wake up grumpy or not be exhilarated by their gifts – but it doesn’t have to stop us from enjoying all the good moments.
Set firm boundaries: Too many invitations to social events? Too many financial demands? Set clear limits about what you are able and willing to do, whether that means declining some social events and setting your own limit on spending this year, focusing more on meaningful experiences over expense. This can be spending time with loved ones or getting creative with homemade gifts.
Feeling alone? There are many ways to steer clear of isolating this time of year. Reaching out to friends, volunteering at animal shelters, local charities or attending community meetups or religious events can be a great way to stay connected while also bringing happiness to ourselves and others.
Making new memories: Starting a new tradition, either solo or with loved ones, can help create fond new memories of the holidays, no longer overshadowed by the past.
Take care of yourself: It’s important to remember the value of self-care, including eating and drinking in moderation (as alcohol can worsen a depressed mood), exercising (even a short walk), and treating yourself this holiday season by doing something you enjoy.
While the holiday blues are most often temporary, it’s important to identify when things have crossed over into clinical depression, which is more severe and longer lasting. It also impairs daily functioning. For these symptoms it is often helpful and necessary to seek professional help. This can consist of counseling or use of medications, or both, to help treat symptoms.
Portia Smith’s most vivid memories of her daughter’s first year are of tears. Not the baby’s. Her own.
“I would just hold her and cry all day,” Smith said.
At 18, Smith was caring for two children, 4-year-old Kelaiah and newborn Nelly, with little help from the partner in her abusive relationship. The circumstances were difficult, but she knew the tears were more than that.
“I really didn’t have a connection for her,” said Smith, now a motivational speaker and mother of three living in Philadelphia. “I didn’t even want to breastfeed because I didn’t want that closeness with her.”
The emotions were overwhelming, but Smith couldn’t bring herself to ask for help.
“You’re afraid to say it because you think the next step is [for the authorities] to take your children away from you,” she said. “You’re young and you’re African American, so it’s like [people are thinking], ‘She’s going to be a bad mom.’”
Smith’s concern was echoed by several black women interviewed for this story. Maternal health experts said some black women choose to struggle on their own rather than seek care and risk having their families torn apart by child welfare services.
Nationally, postpartum depression affects 1 in 7 mothers. Medical guidelines recommend counseling for all women experiencing postpartum depression, and many women also find relief by taking general antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft).
In March, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug specifically for the treatment of postpartum depression, which can include extreme sadness, anxiety and exhaustion that may interfere with a woman’s ability to care for herself or her family. The mood disorder can begin in pregnancy and last for months after childbirth.
The consequences of untreated postpartum depression can be serious. A report from nine maternal mortality review committees in the United States found that mental health problems, ranging from depression to substance use or trauma, went unidentified in many cases and were a contributing factor in pregnancy-related deaths. Although rare, deaths of new mothers by suicide have also been reportedacross the country.
For many women of color, the fear of child welfare services comes from seeing real incidents in their community, said Ayesha Uqdah, a community health worker who conducts home visits for pregnant and postpartum women in Philadelphia through the nonprofit Maternity Care Coalition.
News reports in severalstates and studies at the national level have found that child welfare workers deem black mothers unfit at a higher rate than they do white mothers, even when controlling for factors like education and poverty.
During home visits, Uqdah asks clients the 10 questions on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale survey, one of the most commonly used tools to identify women at risk. The survey asks women to rate things like how often they’ve laughed or whether they had trouble sleeping in the past week. The answers are tallied for a score out of 30, and anyone who scores above 10 is referred for a formal clinical assessment.
Uqdah remembered conducting the survey with one pregnant client, who scored a 22. The woman decided not to go for the mental health services Uqdah recommended.
A week after having her baby, the same woman’s answers netted her a score of zero: perfect mental health.
“I knew there was something going on,” Uqdah said. “But our job isn’t to push our clients to do something they’re not comfortable doing.”
About a month later, the woman broke down and told Uqdah, “I was lying to you. I really did need services, but I didn’t want to admit it to you or myself.”
The woman’s first child had been taken into child welfare custody and ended up with her grandfather, Uqdah said. The young mother didn’t want that to happen again.
Screening Tools Don’t Serve Everyone Well
Another hurdle for women of color comes from the tools clinicians use to screen for postpartum depression.
The tools were developed based on mostly white research participants, said Alfiee Breland-Noble, an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. Often those screening tools are less relevant for women of color.
Research shows that different cultures talk about mental illness in different ways. African Americans are less likely to use the term depression, but they may say they don’t feel like themselves, Breland-Noble said.
It’s also more common for people in minority communities to experience mental illness as physical symptoms. Depression can show up as headaches, for example, or anxiety as gastrointestinal issues.
It took Smith six months after daughter Nelly’s birth to work up the courage to see a doctor about her postpartum depression.
Even then, she encountered the typical barriers faced by new mothers: Therapy is expensive, wait times are long, and coordinating transportation and child care can be difficult, especially for someone struggling with depression.
But Smith was determined. She visited two different clinics until she found a good fit. After several months of therapy and medication, she began feeling better. Today, Smith and her three daughters go to weekly $5 movies and do their makeup together before big outings.
Other mothers never receive care. A recent study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that only 1 in 10 women who screened positive for postpartum depression at the hospital’s urban medical practice sites sought any treatment within the following six months. A study examining three years’ worth of New Jersey Medicaid claims found white women were nearly twice as likely to receive treatment as were women of color.
Noticing that gap, the Maternity Care Coalition in Philadelphia tried something new.
In 2018, the nonprofit started a pilot program that pairs mothers with Drexel University graduate students training to be marriage and family counselors. The student counselors visit the women an hour a week and provide free in-home counseling for as many weeks as the women need. Last year, the program served 30 clients. This year, the organization plans to expand the program to multiple counties in the region and hire professional therapists.
It was a game-changer for Stephanie Lee, a 39-year-old who had postpartum depression after the birth of her second child in 2017.
“It was so rough like I was a mess, I was crying,” Lee said. “I just felt like nobody understood me.”
She felt shame asking for help and thought it made her look weak. Lee’s mother had already helped her raise her older son when Lee was a teenager, and many members of her family had raised multiple kids close in age.
“The black community don’t know postpartum,” Lee said. “There’s this expectation on us as women of color that we have to be … superhero strong, that we’re not allowed to be vulnerable.”
But with in-home therapy, no one had to know Lee was seeking treatment.
The counselors helped Lee get back to work and learn how to make time for herself — even just a few minutes in the morning to say a prayer or do some positive affirmations.
“If this is the only time I have,” Lee said, “from the time I get the shower, the time to do my hair, quiet time to myself — use it. Just use it.”
HIV primarily affects white gay men. You can contract HIV by getting tested for the virus that causes AIDS. Active church members aren’t at risk for HIV.
When NAACP researchers spent a year talking with black faith leaders in 11 cities, they found myths like these continue to circulate among their pews and pulpits. Those findings led the nation’s oldest civil rights organization to mount a campaign calling on black churches to speak out about the disease that disproportionately affects African-Americans.
The pastoral brief, sprinkled with Bible verses, includes a “modern-day parable’’ of a minister who tried to “pray the gay” out of a heterosexual man after he received his HIV diagnosis. It later quotes a Houston minister who feared being in the same room with relatives with HIV/AIDS.
The NAACP recommends partnering with health organizations on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The group compares the church’s need to address HIV to Jesus’ ministry healing the sick and advocating for the oppressed.
“As we make efforts to address the HIV crisis, the Black Church should not be a place where people experience HIV stigma and discrimination, but rather a place of healing, support, and acceptance,” the brief says.
The 66-page manual asks churches to dispel HIV myths and spread the truth. For instance, most black women get HIV through heterosexual sex, and there is no risk for transmission of HIV through testing.
“Regardless of our church activity or engagement, as long as we are having unprotected sex or sharing needles in our communities, we are at risk for contracting HIV,” the manual notes.
The NAACP urges churches to be a “safe space” for HIV prevention and treatment, even if they have to start small: “We understand that incorporating HIV activism into a spiritual setting may be perceived as a difficult process, but it is possible to begin with small steps even in the most conservative environments.”
Webinar: Taking Action This National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
This holiday season, spice up your parties, gatherings and get-togethers with a few delicious recipes from acclaimed chef, Huda Mu’min. Video Courtesy of Roland S. Martin
For many, the holiday season comes with family, friends and lots of food. As part of the Healthy for Life 20 by 20 initiative, to improve the health of Americans, Aramark and the American Heart Association tapped into their experts to assemble a list of healthy tips and tricks to help navigate the holiday season, without sacrificing the flavor or fun of celebrating.
Aramark, the largest food service provider in the United States and one of the largest employers of registered dietitians in the world, and the American Heart Association, the leading voluntary health organization devoted to a world of longer, healthier lives, have teamed up to empower and inspire individuals and families to make better food choices every day, including the holiday season.
Whether it’s cooking for a crowd, or making smart kitchen swaps, Aramark and the American Heart Association will help you put together a winning holiday game plan.
COOKING FOR A CROWD
Aramark chefs serve two billion meals a year, so they’re used to cooking for a crowd every day of the week. Whether for a cocktail party, weekend brunch or holiday dinner, these easy tips will make cooking for a crowd a lot less daunting.
Ask around.Before you get too far with your planning, note anyone who has a food preference, allergy, intolerance, or any other dietary needs or restrictions. While some guests may follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, plenty of people are thinking more plant-forward in general. Come up with a mix of meat, poultry, seafood, and plant-forward offerings so every guest has a selection of dishes to enjoy. It’s a good idea to have at least one meatless main dish for guests who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Plan ahead.Think about what you can take care of in the days leading up to your event. Shopping is a no-brainer. Review all your recipes and check your pantry to compile one master shopping list before you even set foot in the grocery store. Again, buying in-season produce will help you save money, as will buying in bulk, which large parties often require anyway. Once home, take stock of your cookware and serving dishes, laying them out with sticky notes so you know which food will go in which dish.
Welcome helping hands (big and small). If someone offers to help in the kitchen or contribute something, take them up on it! Even kids can get in on the game: Let them toss a salad, set the table, or handle washing the pots and pans. It’s one less thing for you to do as the host, and one more way to inspire their love of healthy home cooking.
SMART KITCHEN SWAPS
There are plenty of healthy baking swaps to lighten up your favorite Holiday treats. Considering swapping out some of the items high in calories, sodium or saturated fat, for a healthier alternative.
One cup of unsweetened apple sauce can be swapped out for one cup of sugar
One cup of mashed bananas can be used to replace one cup of melted butter or oil
Greek yogurt can be used to swap out for different ingredients such as sour cream, butter, oil and heavy cream, but the ratios can vary
Instead of a fruit pie try making a fruit crisp for the holidays, it has fewer calories
Try replacing cream in recipes with regular or low-fat milk
Use herbs and spices, like rosemary and cloves, to flavor dishes, instead of salt or butter
Include lots of seasonal, colorful fruits and vegetables.Do you decorate for the holidays with a lot of color? Treat your plate the same way. Fruits and vegetables will add flavor, color and nutrients to holiday favorites. And they help you feel fuller longer so you can avoid the temptation to overeat.
Navigate holiday parties like a boss.From the obligatory workplace parties to family get-togethers, your calendar may be bursting with opportunities to eat and drink outside of your regular routine. Make a plan that will help you resist plowing through the buffet table, like having a healthy snack beforehand.
Sprinkle in opportunities to be active.Keep the inevitable indulgences in check by staying active. Enjoy some winter sports, for a change of pace, or schedule in a quick walk or workout before you head to the next party. Remember, every little bit helps you get closer to the recommended amount of physical activity.
HOLIDAY HEALTH AND SAFETY
These tips from Aramark’s safety experts will keep safety top of mind when preparing a holiday feast.
Wash your hands. Hands must be washed AFTER using the restroom, coughing, sneezing and handling raw foods and garbage. Always wash your hands BEFORE starting to prepare food and in between tasks. Handwashing is critical to preparing safe food.
Thaw frozen food properly. It is recommended that a refrigerator is used to thaw frozen food, so plan ahead. For every 5 pounds (2kg 270g) of large frozen food, allow 24 hours of refrigerator thawing time. Place the food in a tray or container deep enough to collect any draining fluids to prevent contamination of other foods in the refrigerator.
Use proper cooking temperatures. Cook raw meat products to the minimum internal temperatures as stated on the product packaging. Insert a thermometer (digital is preferred) at several spots including the thickest part of the meat. Achieving the proper internal minimum cooking temperature is critical to preparing safe food.
Store and reheat leftovers safely. Leftovers must be cooled to below 70°F (21°C) within 2 hours, and then to 41°F (5°C) or below within 4 hours. Large items should be broken down into smaller items by either physically breaking items apart or placing the item in multiple small shallow containers. Keep refrigerated leftovers for 3 days from initial cooking or freeze for longer storage and reheat leftover food once to 165°F (74°C) for 15 seconds.
HEALTHY MENU IDEAS
It’s possible to eat healthy during the holidays without FOMO, or a lot of effort. Here are some favorite recipes from Aramark and the American Heart Association that will bring new flavors and twists on holiday favorites to your table.
The idea of suicide is absolutely unthinkable to most. However, if you look at it through the eyes of someone in the darkness of depression, the anxiety of schizophrenia, the confusion of bi-polar disorder and so many others, many people may consider ending it all to have peace.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans. However, mental health is nothing new in the black community, and those who are suffering silently may not always feel that they have a welcoming seat at the table to be comforted or healed.
Mental health is sometimes undermined in the Black community because those who have suicidal thoughts feel that they may be considered “insane” or too weak to withstand life’s circumstances. And then, there are those within the faith community who may say that dealing with suicidal thoughts is as simple as giving it to God or “pray it away.”
But what happens when you’re a Christian and still suffer from mental illness and suicidal thoughts? And what is the church’s role in helping these people?
Josceleyne, 28, had a late diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Amidst the diagnosis she injured her back, lost her job, and lost her insurance; however, she continued to pursue her Master’s degree while being loved by her loyal husband and children.
Due to her sudden loss of income, Josceleyne accrued more student loan debt and extremely was anxious about her financial stability. As a result of all she was going through, Joscelyne, a devout Christian, turned to her pastor for assistance and didn’t receive the response she was expecting. She also felt a lack of emotional support from her church family after her diagnosis, due to what she believed was a lack of understanding, according to family members.
And like others before her, Josceleyne was told to “pray harder,” instead of seeking professional help on how to cope with her current situation.
As time went on, Josceleyne began to take a combination of pain medication to subdue the wrenching back pain and sleeping pills because of her insomnia. Then, one night she accidentally overdosed on her medications and ended her life.
Josceleyne’s family says there was an overwhelmingly negative response to her accidental death that included gossip on her mental state, speculation on why she did not hand her issues to God, and limited support from the community.
Often, the stigma of mental illness in the Black community is that it is a personal issue, not a result of chemical imbalance. However, when people have cancer or other incurable diseases the community may offer sympathy and prayer. There is nothing immoral about seeking medical attention for those ailments, so why would there be criticism for incurable, mental illness?
As Christians, we cannot place the burden on those who suffer. According to Ephesians 6:18, we are told to “be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.”
“Don’t Give Up Like Me.”
Often, members of the black community are raised to avoid cracking under pressure and staying strong even in the midst of chaos. So, mood disorders, such as depression, are viewed as a weakness instead of an illness, which often leads to thoughts of suicide.
Angie, an educated woman in her 20’s, knows this story all too well.
Just a few years ago, her budding, post-recession career was falling apart repeatedly, along with her long-term relationship. And although she appeared to have it all together, she lived just above the poverty line.
As a result of all that was going on, and despite her prayer and praise, Angie finally gave up hope. She made peace with ending her life because she got tired of repeatedly failing, being poor, and felt like a waste of God’s time. Upon making her decision she called her best friend, Elle, and said, “Don’t give up like me. I can’t do it anymore, but you can make it. Just don’t give up.”
On that day, Elle immediately became one of God’s vessels by crying with Angie, discussing her decision, offering encouragement and pushing her to get back up. Then, Angie received additional support from her cousin, Dylan, who sat up with her well into the night to bring her to the source of pain so she could begin to heal.
Soon after, Angie reluctantly went to her pastor and feared condemnation, but instead her concerned pastor simply asked,“Why.” And, even after she explained all of her reasons for wanting to end her life, Angie’s pastor offered both scripture and words of encouragement during her time of need.
Angie says that having Elle, Dylan, and her pastor allowed her to know that nothing was greater than love, especially self-love, which is an extension of God’s love.
How many of us have already written our mental obituaries with the headline, “Don’t Give Up Like Me,” because it was assumed that no one would be there to help us? Is it truly better to suffer alone when we are all a part of God’s family?
By bringing the issue to the forefront, it will help to erase the stigma, recognize the signs/symptoms, and create an avenue of help for those who are suffering.
Ways to Help Those Suffering from Mental Illness
Establish an understanding of what mental illness and mood disorders really are
Consider establishing resources right there in your church, including in-house training for staff, informational videos and pamphlets for parishioners.
Invite speakers who have survived mental illness to come in and speak to members of the congregation.
Consider preaching sermons on mental illness and mood disorders.
Organize events centered around mental health
Provide resources that will connect those in need with the right programs and medical professionals.
Available resources and support for people with mental illness
Brelahn Wyatt, a second-year medical student, hugs Shetland, a half-golden retriever, half-Labrador retriever who also happens to be a lieutenant commander in the Navy and a clinical instructor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. (Julie Rovner/KHN)
The newest faculty member at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences has a great smile — and a wagging tail.
Shetland, not quite 2 years old, is half golden retriever, half Labrador retriever. As of this fall, he is also a lieutenant commander in the Navy and a clinical instructor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at USUHS.
Among Shetland’s skills are “hugging” on command, picking up a fallen object as small as a cellphone and carrying around a small basket filled with candy for harried medical and graduate students who study at the military’s medical school campus in Bethesda, Md.
But Shetland’s job is to provide much more than smiles and a head to pat.
“He is here to teach, not just to lift people’s spirits and provide a little stress relief after exams,” said USUHS Dean Arthur Kellermann. He said students interacting with Shetland are learning “the value of animal-assisted therapy.”
But helper dogs come in many varieties. Service dogs, like guide dogs for the blind, help people with disabilities live more independently. Therapy dogs can be household pets who visit people in hospitals, schools and nursing homes. And then there are highly trained working dogs, like the Belgian Malinois that recently helped run down Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Shetland is technically a “military facility dog,” trained to provide physical and mental assistance to patients as well as interact with a wide variety of people. His military commission does not entitle him to salutes from his human counterparts.
Although service dogs are commonly seen at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Shetland, a retriever mix, is a clinical instructor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology.
Although service dogs are commonly seen at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Shetland, a retriever mix, is a clinical instructor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology.(JULIE ROVNER/KHN)
“The ranks are a way of honoring the services [of the dogs] as well as strengthening the bond between the staff, patients and dogs here,” said Mary Constantino, deputy public affairs officer at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
USUHS, which trains doctors, dentists, nurses and other health professionals for the military, is on the same campus in suburban Washington, D.C., as Walter Reed. Two of the seven Walter Reed facility dogs — Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Sully (the former service dog for President George H.W. Bush) and Marine Sgt. Dillon — attended Shetland’s formal commissioning ceremony in September as guests.
The Walter Reed dogs, on campus since 2007, earn commissions in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. They wear special vests designating their service and rank. The dogs visit and interact with patients in several medical units, as well as in physical and occupational therapy, and help boost morale for patients’ family members.
But Shetland’s role is very different, said retired Col. Lisa Moores, USUHS associate dean for assessment and professional development.
“Our students are going to work with therapy dogs in their careers, and they need to understand what [the dogs] can do and what they can’t do,” she said.
As in civilian life, the military has made significant use of animal-assisted therapy. “When you walk through pretty much any military treatment facility, you see therapy dogs walking around in clinics, in the hospitals, even in the ICUs,” said Moores. Dogs also play a key role in helping returning service members with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Students need to learn who “the right patient is for a dog, or some other therapy animal,” she said. “And by having Shetland here, we can incorporate that into the curriculum so it’s another tool the students know they have for their patients someday.”
The students, not surprisingly, are thrilled by their newest teacher.
Brelahn Wyatt, a second-year medical student, said the Walter Reed dogs used to visit the school’s 1,500 students and faculty fairly regularly, but “having Shetland here all the time is optimal.” And not just because of the hugs and candy.
Wyatt said the only thing she knew about service dogs before “is that you’re not supposed to pet them.” But Shetland acts as both a service dog and a therapy dog, so he can be petted.
That helps medical students see “there’s a difference. What does that difference look like in the health care setting?” said Wyatt.
Like his colleagues Sully and Dillon, Shetland was bred and trained by America’s VetDogs. The New York nonprofit provides dogs for “stress control” for active-duty military missions overseas, as well as service dogs for disabled veterans and civilian first responders. Many of the puppies are raised by a combination of prison inmates (during the week) and families (on the weekends), before returning to New York for formal service dog training. National Hockey League teams such as the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders also raise puppies for the organization.
Dogs can be particularly helpful in treating service members, said Valerie Cramer, manager of America’s VetDogs service dog program. “The military is thinking about resiliency. They’re thinking about well-being, about decompression in the combat zone.” Often people in pain won’t talk to another person but will open up in front of a dog. “It’s an opportunity to start a conversation as a behavioral health specialist,” she said.
While service dogs for individuals are trained to perform both physical tasks like picking up dropped items and emotional ones like waking a veteran having a nightmare, facility dogs like Shetland are special, Cramer said. “That dog has to work in all different environments with people who are under pressure. It can work for multiple handlers, it can go and visit people, can go visit hospital patients, can knock over bowling pins to entertain or spend time in bed with a child.”
The military rank for the dogs is no joke. They can be promoted ― as Dillon was from Army specialist to sergeant in 2018 ― or demoted for bad behavior.
Said Kellermann, “So far, Shetland has a perfect conduct record.”