A person at my church believes that “dogs are one of the only animals that intentionally look at you in the eyes.” Our dog Fia, a boxer/poodle mix, will be six years old this fall and she has the most beautiful, deep, and soulful brown eyes. With a faithful dog at your side, life seems a little better. The compassionate gaze from a canine companion offers comfort, companionship, and emotional support.
In the face of the dull and grey clouds of depression, a dog can bring rays of sunshine. It makes sense to me that one popular way people have coped during the pandemic is by bringing a new dog into their home. We recently added a second dog to our family, a 10 week old “goldendoodle” named Indy. As the dull, grey clouds of depression continue to loom over our home we need a little more sunshine and compassion these days. I don’t think getting a dog is a miracle cure for mental illness, but it does help us feel a little more open-hearted and hopeful.
September is both Suicide Prevention Month and National Service Dog Month. There’s a medical dog training program in my city called “Medical Mutts” that trains dogs to be service animals for psychiatric and physical disabilities. According to Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a global collective of non-profit that train and place assistance dogs, only 2% of service dogs are for general “psychiatric“ support. The most common types of service dogs are for mobility (49%), followed by autism (27%), and then PTSD Veteran (15%) (source: https://assistancedogsinternational.org/resources/resources/).
As we work to create faith communities that are WISE (Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged) for mental health, how might assistance dogs benefit members of your congregation? Does your church have a policy in place that ensures a safe and warm welcome for people with emotional support animals and assistance dogs? First Congregational UCC of Indianapolis, where I serve as pastor, is a WISE church and we are currently discussing and discerning what adopting this new policy might look like for us. There are several important questions to be asked and answered in the process, with strong feelings from multiple perspectives, yet, I am hopeful we can grow deeper in our understanding and support for one another.
A dog in the sanctuary? As more and more people experience the debilitating effects of depression, assistance dogs might become a more common feature of our collective life together in churches, schools, and offices. According to the CDC, from August of 2020 to February 2021, 41.5% of adults experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression (source: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7013e2.htm). That’s a whole lot of dull, grey clouds looming out there in the world. We all need a little more sunshine.
Let’s each do our part, however simple or small, to work together towards creating communities of inclusion, accessibility, emotional wellness, radical belonging, and healing. With a little help from our canine friends, the dog days of depression can be transformed into more bright and sunny days to come.
Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund (she/her/hers)
Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund (she/her/hers) serves on the national staff of the United Church of Christ as Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice. She also serves as senior pastor of First Congregational UCC of Indianapolis, IN. Sarah is the author of the acclaimed and best selling books “Blessed Are The Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and the Church“ (Chalice Press, 2014) and “Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage (Chalice Press, 2021). She blogs at www.sarahgriffithlund.com.