Sunday, January 24, 2010

Canadian explains how service dog helps with her mental illness

From The Windsor Star in Canada:

WINDSOR, Ontario -- Jennifer Francis has a disability and requires a service dog — but there’s nothing wrong with her sight, hearing or limbs.

The 23-year-old London resident and engineering student is a diagnosed sufferer of bipolar Type 2 disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder.

“I have a disability, and it is chronic,” Francis told an audience at the University of Windsor student centre this week. “For many years to come, I will be healing.”

Francis was a featured speaker at a campus presentation on taking the stigma out of mental illness.

Francis said her condition is unusual in that she’s comfortable sharing intimate details of her life with a room full of strangers, but a simple family gathering or a trip to the mall is a stressful event that can lead to an episode.

As she spoke at the podium, Francis was accompanied by Spirit, her four-year-old female golden retriever.

Francis said Spirit is Southwestern Ontario’s first recognized mental health assistance dog, trained by a Hamilton-based organization called Encouraging Paws Service Dogs.

According to Francis, Spirit has been taught to read her body language and recognize panic attacks. Wherever Francis goes — including classes and exams — Spirit follows, tethered to Francis’s waist.

Although Francis continues to take an array of mood stabilizers and anti-psychotic drugs for her condition, she described an episode that occurred last summer where she awoke one night with hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.

Francis credits Spirit with alerting her mother of her need for immediate help.

“I do not, and will not, have to fight this battle alone,” Francis said about her support system.

Asked if anyone ever questions Spirit’s presence — for example, at places of business — Francis said Spirit has all the necessary documents that identify her as a service dog.

If a problem persists, Francis said she invites complainants to call the police. “That usually shuts them up,” she said.

“I get a big smile out of it, after a while, because I know they’re in the wrong and I’m in the right.”

Francis described her family life as “wonderful,” and said there were no indications of mental illness in her childhood and adolescence. Her symptoms began in her first year of university.

Asked if there is any history of mental illness in her family, Francis said: “There is a genetic component . . . But no one talked about it. It wasn’t dealt with.”

Six years after her struggles began, Francis will graduate this year with an engineering degree. She has close friends and a boyfriend, and is active in raising awareness about mental health issues, on campus and beyond.

“I have been given a gift,” Francis told the audience. “I am better because of my disability.”

Barbara Hall, head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, also spoke at Tuesday’s event.

“We need to have more conversations like this,” Hall told the audience.

According to Hall, one in five Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. She said education efforts must continue to dispel the fear and stigma associated with such problems.

“The more we believe this is not unusual, the more we will talk about it openly,” Hall said.