Therapy Aims To Communicate Through Seashells And Soft, Furry Things
Apr. 28, 1995
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ He's 11 years old, locked in a psychiatric unit for two weeks at a stretch. His face is tense, with dark circles under angry eyes.
A therapist brings out a rabbit. ``Oooh. I want to hold him,'' the boy says, his face softening just a little. He strokes the rabbit's ears. Kisses its forehead.
The interaction was arranged by therapist Rebecca Reynolds, who has just written a book about the benefits of bringing animals, plants and other bits of nature into institutions ranging from mental hospitals to schools for the handicapped.
Animals can reach troubled people in ways that doctors can't, she says.
In the locked psychiatric ward of Cambridge City Hospital, therapists pass around plants, rocks and seashells so the 15 children can touch and smell them.
Slowly, Reynolds brings out two collies. Next comes the rabbit and a dove. The program ends with Reynolds showing them a hawk with a deformed wing that keeps it grounded.
Children, she says, are fascinated by the hawk because of its wildness.
``We all recognize wildness,'' Reynolds says. ``Particularly in a psychiatric ward, where the children are here because of violence. It's really the kids learning about themselves through the animals.''
Using plants and animals as therapy is not new. At McLean Hospital in Belmont, doctors bring dogs and cats to elderly patients with psychiatric disorders. McLean has a greenhouse for schizophrenic and manic depressive patients who are learning to live outside the hospital.
``Just being in contact with nature is very relaxing. And when we're put in contact with the process of helping things grow, it really connects with our own process of growth and change,'' says Joanne Keir, a counselor who runs McLean's greenhouse.
Reynolds, 32, describes her technique in her recently published book ``Bring Me the Ocean.'' The title comes from her experience of bringing buckets of sea water to a paralyzed man who could not speak. When he saw the water, he used letters to spell out for his doctors that he was once a lobsterman.
At the Cambridge hospital, the youngsters are aggressive and depressed. Some are homicidal and prone to set fires. Doctors say if the children can be gentle with animals, they can learn to behave better with people. Animals also can give them an outlet for talking about their problems.
Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist, tells of a 15-year-old boy in the unit who had spent time petting some dogs. Afterward, he reminisced about his family once picking out a dog from the pound.
``By talking about the dog, he could be talking about his own feelings of rejection or about his family,'' she says.
Kids stay on the Cambridge hospital's locked ward for two weeks at a time, sent there by parents, schools or social workers. Afterward, they go home or to other hospitals or special schools. A few come back for a second or third time.
``Everything's locked,'' says counselor Ed Santana, jiggling the handles of the toy closet and the laundry room. ``They need intense supervision. There's laundry detergent in here, they may try to ingest it.''
The children earn points for good behavior. With enough points, they can go outside, to play in the grass near the hospital or on field trips to the aquarium or the zoo.
When Reynolds and her helpers take away the animals, the 11-year-old boy is the last to leave the therapy room. He follows the carrying case that holds the rabbit, then he runs over to some hospital counselors, waving a card.
``Look, I've got all the points,'' he says. Maybe enough to go outside.