Hannah Mains is an intern at the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD) and runs an animal-assisted therapy program with her canine, Lola, at East High School, Manual High School, and McAuliffe Middle School. Mains sat down with DPS to share some of the bright spots and challenges of her animal-assisted therapy program.
Q: What motivated you to launch this program?
I’m currently earning my Master of Social Work at the University of Denver with a certificate in animal-assisted therapy. As one of the few research-backed strategies to support trauma, anxiety and depression, animal-assisted therapy can be a wonderful tool to help support students. I’m lucky that my internship with MCHD and DPS has let me do this work.
The original intent of the program was to help students with thoughts of suicide and depression. We know that suicide can be related to mental health, bullying, social media, or personal situations. Finding a therapeutic modality that works was the driving force behind getting this program approved.
Q: Animal-assisted therapy seems like it could be challenging in a school environment. How did you ensure the safety of everyone at the school?
Starting an animal-assisted therapy program is not the easiest process, which makes sense — you want to make sure that you don’t inadvertently create more trauma while trying to decrease it. We started in June of 2018 and received approval in March of this year — but when you’re working with three different organizations (MHCD, DPS and Denver Health) to create a policy for three different schools, you want to take the time to do it right.
I worked with nurses to make sure we had a plan for students with allergies; in one school, Lola stays in a specific space to respect the wishes of some of our students and staff. We get written consent prior to any interactions with staff or students. We make sure we know where Lola is at all times, especially in case of emergencies (like a fire drill).
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve seen working with this program?
It’s less about the challenges and more about the opportunities. I get the opportunity to educate people on how to interact with Lola well. For example, screaming can be really alarming for a dog. While Lola is trained to be more tolerant of challenging situations, I always look for the opportunity to educate people on how to work and interact with her in a positive way.
She’s also in incredibly high demand, so it’s important to make sure that the groups and individuals that she works with have priority so they can continue creating a safe relationship with her. People also always want to pet her or hug her in the hallway, but we set safe boundaries and stick to them, which is really important for students.
Q: How have the students and staff responded to this program?
We’ve seen such a positive response by both students and staff. I was surprised at how Lola has not only made me feel connected to these schools, but she’s brought staff together in a way that was completely unexpected. The staff often send students down to see us if a student is having a bad day — and sometimes staff members show up themselves!
I’ve seen youth who might not normally spend time together interact in group therapy sessions that have become really positive. I run groups on healthy boundaries and relationships, and some students have expanded their social circle and create support systems when they otherwise might not have. We’ve even seen a mentor relationship come out of these groups.
One of the most beautiful outcomes is helping students process grief and trauma in a way that is different than a traditional therapy environment. When Lola is present, students feel safe and they talk to her directly. Some days, her back is absolutely wet with tears, but we go home knowing we’ve given students (and staff) a safe space to process and heal. That’s an incredible experience.
Reviewing the current landscape of mental health and Whole Child offerings in our schools is part of Superintendent Susana Cordova’s plan for leading DPS toward a streamlined focus on Equity, Instructional Excellence and Collaborative Teamwork. Learn more at superintendent.dpsk12.org.