Nine-year-old Alessia gently takes in her hands Waffle, a hamster placed at her disposal in her treatment for attention deficit in a hospital in Mexico City.
“It helps me forget anxiety, control my emotions, relax, be more focused”, says the little girl at the end of a session in the presence of two psychologists. Eight dogs and two Australian parakeets complete the team of animals trained for this program of the National Mental Health Center of the Institute of Safety and Social Services of State Workers (ISSSTE).
The star is called Harley, aka “one-eyed”, a five-year-old pug dog who lost his right eye while playing with a door. Harvey rose to fame during the Covid-19 pandemic, which worsened and popularized mental health issues around the world.
“He recovered quickly and we took that as an example of resilience in the face of adversity”says Dr. Lucia Ledesma, national head of the ISSSTE Mental Health Service.
“Human mom” of Harley, the specialist in neuropsychology is one of the precursors of this initiative taken in 2016 to initially help children with cancer. “Animal therapies” began in other countries as early as the 1970s. “Contact with animals generates radical neuro-psychological changes, lowering the level of stress, anxiety, in addition to favoring other cognitive processes”, details Ledesma.
Relief during the pandemic
During the pandemic, Harley was going all the way to hospitals’ Covid units to distract medical staff members separated from their families, facing very long working days. “It was the only place in the world where animals entered Covid units”assure Ledesma. “We have received international recognition”.
Nurse, Silvia Hernandez knew Harley during the pandemic. “He came straight to me, like he knew me, like we were great friends,” she says with emotion. “He let us pet him.” “We could see the emotion of the colleagues (…) how his presence allowed them to free themselves from tension. Some cried about it”, remembers the nurse.
The pandemic has worsened mental health problems in the Americas, according to a report by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The reason: the increase in risk factors such as unemployment, economic insecurity and bereavement. It is in this context that the ISSSTE created the “Harley and Friends” mental health program. The objective is to prevent and detect complications, and to intervene on the problems already identified, underlines Ledesma.
The choice of a dog depends less on its breed than on its temperament, which must transmit tranquility, and its ability to interact with humans, adds the specialist. The advantage is that it costs nothing to Social Security, she adds jokingly about Harvey: “He continues to make guards and replacements”. The fame of the pug is such that brands of kibble and accessories for dogs have offered him free products and offers of advertising contracts. harley “rejected all offers. He lost an opportunity to get rich. He regrets it now”, jokes Ledesma, faced with the questioning gaze of the dog mounted on his desk.