Sunday, May 19Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

A Debate over Puppy Therapy at SURHUL.

Mental Health is Important, but Puppies aren’t the Answer. (Original Article)

Mental Health issues are a complicated, yet common thing within society and I’m glad to see the SU is responding to it through its Mental Health Awareness Week in January. They say mental health problems will affect 1 in 4 people, therefore any efforts to tackle the stigma around talking about such problems are very welcome. However, it is important we get our facts right about what helps and what doesn’t.

At the end of last term ‘Puppy Therapy’ was a hugely successful event at the SU, and why wouldn’t it be? Dogs are lovely, and one can’t help but feel for the ones at Battersea Dogs home who are without a family to love them. What I do take contention with, however, is the misleading link between this activity and its links to mental health.

For those who don’t know, Puppy Therapy began across the pond and has grown in prominence in UK universities recently. It’s important to acknowledge it as what it is though: a fad.

Though stroking animals may, according to some studies, lower one’s stress levels, such correlation is not substantial proof. Indeed, alternative therapies, such as Puppy Therapy, have long been criticised by the scientific literature as having only short-term placebo effects, and as being ineffective on the underlying causes of mental illnesses in the long-term. As such, we must not conflate this idea with it being an answer to mental illness, and we definitely should not call it a cure or a ‘therapy’. The fact is that mental health issues, such as depression, are both multifaceted and deeply personal and so in trying to combat them, therapies must take a multidimensional approach and be tailored to an individual. That is, one broad approach such as this, particularly one that has not undergone rigorous medical and psychological testing, is not likely to be ‘The Answer’ and to suggest otherwise is, frankly, misleading and dangerous. Most disconcertingly, there is a huge stigma about admitting you may be suffering from these illnesses to a doctor or loved one, therefore I worry branding this fad as therapy might offer a false hope to people. To those on the outside, it may also perpetuate the fallacy that stress is not a ‘real’ mental illness.

Again, I don’t want to be a kill-joy, and I have nothing against the idea of having animals around; I wouldn’t mind if there were regularly organised trips to Battersea so that people could give love to unloved pets. Hell, I might even pop by the next puppy session at the SU myself! The stress relief which an activity like Puppy Therapy can bring could never be considered a bad thing, and from the reaction the last session received, it was very popular and did help people to calm down for an hour or so during their end-of-term hysteria. However, I think we should be honest about what helps mental health problems in the long run, and be careful about what we brand as a type of therapy and what is simply a fun thing to do.

Puppies Can Get Us Talking (Response Article)

*Trigger Warning: Mentions of suicide and mental health issues*

The student population is under more stress now than ever before. The student suicide rate has risen by 50% in the past five years and mental health issues affect one in four of the entire population. Counselling services across the country are being overwhelmed by stressed students, and we’re lucky to have an award winning service here at Royal Holloway. Stress and mental health are big issues before, during and after university.

Puppies were never going to solve this, but they were going to get us talking. They were going to draw the attention of people who had never thought of mental health or stress in this way before. By getting people together to talk about mental health, stress and coping, we begin to smash the stigma. Puppy therapy got students together to engage in a day-time non-alcoholic activity that was focused on the present moment. It was about taking the time to do something enjoyable.

Two hundred and sixty seven students came over two hours to the first test event, most of them I had never seen at a stress-busting activity before. Many of them were talking about pets back home, and coping with the differences of home life versus university life which can be a form of stress. We advertised Nightline, a student listening service throughout the event, and during Mental Health Awareness Week they will had a stand on the day that Battersea brought in their dogs.

As a Students’ Union, puppies are a very small portion of what we do around mental health and stress. In fact, the puppy campaign is the first time that we have had a welfare campaign around these issues that will run all year round. Mental Health Awareness Week and Sexual Health Awareness & Guidance (SHAG) week both happen once an academic year, with additional Stress Buster events throughout the third term. The Disabled Students Network meet regularly, and we have a fantastic Advice and Support Centre upstairs in the SU. This year we’re launching videos about mental health, as well as another online photo campaign with statistics and guest blogs with student experiences during the campaign week.

I agree with most of the criticisms noted, and welcome them. I brought in puppy therapy single-handedly; it was on my manifesto when I ran for the position of VP Education and Welfare. Nobody thought it was possible, although everyone liked the idea; and so I began from scratch. I would have loved some help, ideas and volunteers when creating this event, as well as with several others, and if you don’t like the way something is being done, then get involved and make your mark. One of the great things about Students’ Unions is that they belong to you – you decide how and where they run. Add your own twist, because good ideas become great ideas when more than one person works on them.

I wanted an SU that began conversations about the things I cared about, like mental health and stress, in an exciting and attention grabbing way. I love that the campaign I built is being criticised for not being big enough, because I agree, but it’s bigger and better than what was there before.

Which leaves me with a question for you all; it’s election season soon, what would you like to build?

Original Article: Frances Jones

Response Article: Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton

Photograph: (Featured);