For as long as she can remember, 20-year-old Molly Wilson has seen people and heard terrifying voices — hallucinations created by schizophrenia. Now, she can turn to Hank, her overly friendly black Lab/Rottweiler mix for help. Hank knows how to “clear” a dark room for Molly and turn on the lights.
“If Hank walks through and comes out, Molly knows there’s nothing there,” says her mother, Melanie. “And if she sees something, but Hank, who is so friendly that he greets everyone, doesn’t acknowledge it, she knows it’s not real.”
Hank is a trained psychiatric service dog, part of a burgeoning field of canine helpers that give hope to people with mental illness — everything from depression to schizophrenia — and help mitigate or manage crippling symptoms. Psychiatric service dogs like Hank, used with other treatments such as medication and therapy, offer new possibilities for mental health.
“Dogs are naturally attentive to our emotional states,” Kerri Rodriguez, of the Center for the Human Animal Bond at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, which highlights the incredible help Molly and three other people with severe mental illness have received from their psychiatric service dogs.
A dog’s instinctive bond with humans and ability to smell in parts-per-trillion means they can be trained to smell — and act on — emotions like fear or anxiety, says Maria Goodavage, author of Doctor Dogs, which examines the growing use of canines in health care: “We’re looking at just the tip of the iceberg with what these dogs can do.”
Since at least the age of 14, the voices in Molly’s head have told her “she’s worthless, that she needed to kill herself, that nobody loved her,” says Melanie. The voices have also told Molly to cut herself. Hank, trained to know what a razor blade looks like, can interrupt cutting.
“When he sees one in my hand, he’ll put his paw on my arm so my arm will come down,” says Molly, who lives with her family in Daytona Beach, Florida. “Or he’ll nudge at the razor blade so that I’ll stop.”
He’s also able to calm Molly’s panic attacks. “He’ll paw at me and he’ll jump up on top of me and put his paws on my shoulders,” says Molly. “And lick my face. And he’ll sit there with his paws on my shoulders and nudge at me, kinda get me to slow my breathing.”
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In 2015, after Molly’s first suicide attempt and six months of in-patient treatment, her parents Melanie and Greg decided to scrimp together $15,000 to train Hank, their beloved family pet, to become a service dog. He received five months of intensive training at Comprehensive Pet Therapy in Atlanta.
Other psychiatric therapy dog training programs, such as paws4people in Wilmington, North Carolina, breed and train their own golden retrievers and Labradors, with prison inmates teaching the pups 120 commands that are then customized to the client’s behaviors and symptoms in concert with his or her mental-health providers. “The goal is to incorporate the dog as another tool for you to use for wellness,” says Danielle Cockerham, a deputy executive director at paws4people, which provides the pups for free.
Molly’s hallucinations have led to two suicide attempts, and multiple hospitalizations. She asks to be hospitalized to feel safe, says Melanie. Yet Molly can’t talk about these voices or hallucinations that haunt her. “Molly’s told us that talking about them makes them more violent,” Greg explains. Between suicide attempts and cutting, Melanie feels like she is on a “constant suicide watch.”
Molly now tells her parents she has two reasons to live — for Hank and her young nephew, says Melanie. Despite Molly’s severe struggles, Hank has enabled Molly to feel the confidence to leave the house to complete high school and take college classes. When Molly feels down or hears the voices, “if she has him up against her,” says Melanie, “you can just see her relax and know that she looks to him to be able to make that all go away.”
But there are other voices Hank cannot silence. “People judge and will say under their breath, ‘Some people just like to take their dogs everywhere,'” says Molly, who recently started work as a school after-care leader where Melanie teaches.
Greg, a former Marine who sees Hank as a form of body armor for Molly, hopes for public understanding of service dogs: “With Hank’s help, Molly is able to leave the house and try life. Hank makes life seem possible for Molly. He has given her hope.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.