Charlene Clark, pet therapist, and “Buster Brown,” a very special pet therapy dog, have been volunteering at New Hampshire Hospital since 1994. They work at a psychiatric hospital with 144 adult beds, 41 elder care beds and a 22-bed children and adolescent unit. Studies have found some persons with mental illness feel disconnected from everything and everyone around them. Pet therapy is one of the many therapeutic interventions that has a long history of benefit to persons with mental illness and is used in conjunction with other treatment modalities.
Clark and Buster visit with persons suffering from depression, personality disorders, schizophrenia, Bi-polar disorder, dementia, neuropsychotic disorders and other forms of mental illness. Clark uses Buster to establish a patient-therapist relationship that in some instances acts as a springboard to the patient accepting ensuing treatment strategies. In practice, Buster functions as an addition to Clark. She uses Buster Brown to actively engage patients in meaningful and therapeutic situations. Together, they stimulate responses, which may not be shown in relationships to humans alone. Patients express feelings without fear of rejection or unattainable expectations as Buster accepts them unconditionally and affectionately.
Clark is a very positive individual and is always willing to share pet stories during her visits and also actively teaches patients the importance of responsible pet ownership and how to care for them. Clark and Buster have a positive effect on the lives they touch as demonstrated by the responses that are elicited from their visits. Patients ask to hold Buster and pat him as they talk to Clark about animals they have had throughout their lives. Eyes sparkle and smiles form as Buster wags his tail and gives dog kisses in response to the attention he is getting. These interactions help patients maintain a sense of identity and promote their overall well-being.
Clark balances many commitments and other volunteer efforts to make a difference in the lives of people with mental illness. Many citizens still have an overwhelming fear of people who have a mental illness. However, Clark, through her volunteer service, is committed to building a better understanding about mental illness throughout her community to dispel these fears.