Animal-assisted therapy designed to prevent youth suicide

The UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country has come up with a pioneering programme through dog-assisted interventions which is designed to prevent suicidal behaviour

  • Research

First publication date: 28/04/2022

animal-assisted therapy
Dogs help people displaying suicidal behaviour, as they foster emotional bonds, reduce feelings of rejection and stigmatisation, and promote spontaneous communication. Photo: dasya11 / 123rf.

Various researchers from the Faculty of Psychology and the Faculty of Medicine and Nursing at the UPV/EHU are for the first time designing, implementing and evaluating a treatment using animal-assisted therapy to prevent and reduce suicidal behaviour in young people. After undergoing the intervention, the young people displayed a reduction in suicidal behaviour and non-suicidal self-harm, as well as an increased willingness to seek help.

Youth suicide is a global public health problem. According to data provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO), suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in the 15-29 age group after road traffic injuries, tuberculosis and interpersonal violence. That is why reducing mortality by suicide is one of the WHO's priority objectives.

A number of studies involving animal-assisted psychotherapy with young people suffering from mental health problems have been conducted. However, "in this study we applied animal-assisted therapy, in our case dogs, for the first time to treat a phenomenon as complex as suicidal behaviour in adolescents and young people", said Alexander Muela, one of the UPV/EHU researchers who carried out the study.

Young people displaying suicidal behaviour are not always able to outwardly express their emotional distress or share it with family or friends, and often fail to seek help or distrust traditional treatments. "What we have observed is that including animals in the intervention enhances motivation and adherence to treatment. It also helps to establish a climate of security and trust as the animal acts as a social lubricant. The dogs we use are specially trained and prepared. They are docile, very sociable animals that display great flexibility when dealing with stressful stimuli. They are the perfect animals to help people displaying suicidal behaviour, as they foster emotional bonds, reduce feelings of rejection and stigmatisation, and promote spontaneous communication, thus promoting the effect of the treatment," said the UPV/EHU researcher.

”After the animal-assisted treatment," Muela went on, "the young people showed reductions in suicidal ideation and non-suicidal self-harm, as well as a greater willingness to seek help. This perception that they could ask for help if they needed it may reflect an increase in their confidence to turn to community support resources at other times of great emotional distress".

"Through the treatment we observed that the young people had learned to spot the warning signs of suicide and had learned emotional regulation strategies that are more advisable than non-suicidal self-harm," said Alexander Muela. "Learning to deal with these warning signs, to be capable of seeking and asking for help, and to achieve a more hopeful sense of life are the keys to this type of intervention," he added.

According to Alexander Muela, "the preliminary results from this pilot study suggest that the programme may be effective in reducing suicidal behaviour and non-suicidal self-harm in young people with high risk factors for suicide". "One of the main consequences of the presence of animals is that they facilitate socio-emotional learning interventions and represent an added factor that maximises their impact," added the UPV/EHU researcher.

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