Mental health resources are limited. Therapy dogs provide a sense of peace

ORLANDO, Florida. – Central Florida mental health experts have resources to share with residents, including furry four-legged helpers.

For Dr. Beth Long, chief of behavioral health at Nemours Children’s Health, her job during the pandemic was from inside the hospital, caring for patients with complex medical needs in addition to mental health issues.

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“I would say about a year later, I saw the kids and the families start to struggle more than I initially (saw),” Long said.

Data from the Nemours emergency department from April 2021 to April 2022 showed two and a half times as many pediatric patients with positive suicide screens.

Long said even with the latest efforts to increase mental health resources for Central Florida residents, the need is immense.

“Even if we hire 20 more people, it feels like this bottomless pit that we just can’t fill, and it’s the worst thing (is) to say no to people who need help,” said declared Long.

Residents of Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties in immediate crisis can call 2-1-1 for in-home crisis care through Devereux Mobile Crisis Services.

As providers navigate the national mental health crisis, four-legged assistants roam the halls of the hospital.

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“There’s a dog that’s addicted to hand sanitizer, so it’s hilarious when he walks into the rooms,” Long said.

Sheila Roberts is a volunteer with Animal Assisted Activities. She brought her dog Halo to the hospital to visit pediatric patients.

“He cares if someone’s crying, he’ll quietly approach them, but if there’s a party, he’ll jump up,” Roberts said.

For a long time, dog visits have tended to be the highlight of the day for patients and providers.

“It definitely breaks up the day, it’s probably the thing they’re looking forward to the most,” Long said.

As the work of mental health care providers grows, dogs provide a sense of peace to help everyone move forward.

“It’s okay, we’ll rebuild,” Long said.

If you or someone you love needs mental health care, we have a list of phone numbers and websites to find help.

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