Mental Health and Equine- Assisted Therapy (E.A.T) in the Covid-19 era:
Following our previous blog post on the ‘Benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy’, we thought it might be interesting to revisit this topic in the context of the Covid-19 global pandemic.
Mental Health has been at the forefront of many discussions this past year, while anxiety and depression have skyrocketed as a result of prolonged isolation, grief, and loss. As we continue to recognize the benefits of outdoors activities and contact with animals on our mental health, adequate funding for large-scale scientific studies remains a necessary step in recognizing E.A.T as an official therapy for mental health treatment.
A surge in demand for Equine-Assisted Therapy:
The pandemic has pushed some people’s mental health to new lows, forcing individuals to look for ways of coping with the impacts of Covid. With that, a surge in demand for E.A.T has been reported across many countries.
In Pennsylvania, Elena Roth, a mental health clinician, has established her own equine assisted therapy program in 2018, The Rein Equine Therapy, for clients suffering from HDHD and trauma. This program focuses on conquering fears, anxiety and depression, and seeks to facilitate interactions between humans and horses, and finding healing through this connection. In these past few months, Roth has witnessed a “massive uptick” in people seeking her services during the pandemic, reporting that her sessions were often fully booked months in advance.
In Newfoundland, a new program called “Coping with Covid Fatigue”, funded by the Canadian Red Cross, has facilitated a partnership between two equine therapy organizations, the Spirit Horse mental health program and Countrytime Equine, to help individuals cope with Covid anxiety, isolation and depression. The program is open to anyone suffering from Covid stressors who wishes to enroll.
Across the pond, in Madrid, Spain, the Association “Terapias Al Paso” has also reported a 30% increase in demand for equine therapy since the beginning of the pandemic, an outdoor activity deemed ‘low risk’ of contagion.
What does Science say about E.A.T ?
As Winston Churchill once said: ” There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”, a statement that many can relate to, but how much scientific data really is there to back it up?
While there have been numerous reports of improvement in the lives of patients suffering from mental health disorders after undergoing E.A.T, there is in fact limited scientific data to support it. An notable article, published in December 2020 by the Open Access Government, points to the lack of funding for appropriate research required to draw evidence-based conclusions. As the benefits of E.A.T have not been studied extensively, the findings thus far mostly consist of qualitative results from individual reports, as well as small quantitative studies. Similarly, Psychology Today points out some of the biggest flaws and deficiencies in reporting E.A.T findings up to date, such as the lack of a control group, small subject numbers, lack of blinded experiments and objective measures, as well as limited follow-up studies.
Unfortunately, limited financial resources for this type of research and the lack of large-scale controlled studies means this alternative form of treatment may not be advocated for or be accessible to some individuals who would benefit from it.
But there is hope. A new exploratory study published in February 2021 showed that E.A.T may play a role in the reward circuitry of the brain. Using neuroimaging, the experiment has identified structural changes in the brains of patients with PTSD after undergoing E.A.T. This shift took place in the resting-state reward networks and was strongly correlated with clinical progress and improved symptoms in these patients.
As we are beginning to see an increased awareness and desire to experiment alternative methodologies to improve mental health, further research, innovation, and funding is needed to support our well-being. Promoting accessibility of E.A.T to patients in need of alternative mental health treatments is an important step in helping our communities recover from these challenging times.
Image Credits: Photo by Kartini Maxson on Unsplash (royalty-free)