YOUNGSTERS are enjoying the benefits of animal therapy – with some services reporting “astronomical” increases in demand since the Covid pandemic began.

Young people have faced mental health challenges in recent years including the impact of the pandemic on schooling, meaning organisations are looking to broaden the scope of their offering, and the UK this month marked Mental Health Awareness Week.

Muirfield Riding Therapy in North Berwick opened more than 30 years ago, and the centre uses horses to help boost mental health.

Since the start of the pandemic, it has reported a major increase in demand, and has created new programmes to keep up with this.

“Applications for therapy for mental health increased astronomically in recent years,” explains Deborah McLaughlin, volunteer and fundraising manager of the centre.

“Because of the pandemic, we had to develop. We created the ‘Quiet Corner’, which respected social distance at the time, and it worked so well that we decided to keep it even after Covid.”

The initiative gives the participants one-to-one time with a pony in a relaxed environment.

“Being around animals, smelling, breathing, and touching them brings a sense of calmness.”

The centre also highlights the importance of contact with nature.

Recently, its team carried out a “Walk and Talk” programme in partnership with the Bridges Project, in which the participants take a pony out for a walk while talking to a practitioner about their mental health.

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The Bridges Project is a charity working with young people in East Lothian and Midlothian, helping them to get back into Scotland, find jobs and apprenticeships and in seeking other help.

Simen Holm, its fundraising and communications manager, was pleasantly surprised with the youngsters’ experience: “It’s been really successful. It’s the first time we’ve done something like this.

“It was interesting to see how the kids interacted with the animals and the impact they can have on young people’s health.”

Animal therapy can help break down emotional barriers, uplift people’s mood and improve mental health.

NHS Lothian psychotherapist Dr Lisa Thomson reports improvements in young people who engage with pets during therapy sessions.

She says: “It helps the young person to keep calmer and be able to focus on something else other than the worry and the stress of going to the clinic.

“Some children have been able to attend appointments we never thought they would be able to attend.

“The dog is almost like a distraction and a way of calming and reducing anxiety so the young person can tolerate being where they need to be to complete an assessment or to engage with therapy. It’s been really successful.”

NHS collaborates with Muirfield Riding Therapy and Therapet to assist young people.

The Therapet charity works with nearly hundreds of dogs and cats across Scotland in support groups and one-to-one sessions, offering assistance to places such as clinics, hospitals, universities and schools.

Therapet chief executive Mel Hughes has seen a positive impact in youngsters after just a short term engaging with the pets.

“It’s good for the children. It’s about giving them the tools to be successful adults,” she says.

“It may only be 10 to 15 minutes, but even that makes a difference.”

The charity’s therapy visiting services have been running for the past 55 years.

“There are all sorts of ways that animals can help and there is high demand. I think people see the benefit of it,” Hughes adds.

Dr Lisa Thomson wants to see the partnership working continue.

“It’s definitely been working well and it’s something we would like to continue to access,” she adds.

“It’s been transformative for some people.”