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He weighs only three and a half pounds, but the issues K-9 Gizmo picks up couldn’t be more serious – mental health problems and alarming suicide rates among young people. Now that Connecticut-based pooch is the face of a new mental health curriculum available to schools across America.
With 10 years in the job as a first aid therapy dog with the nonprofit K9 first responders, the 11-year-old pup is no stranger to helping people feel better, said Michael Purcaro, Vernon city administrator.
“Gizmo has been with us at ‘Snowtober’ since 2011, until recently the house explosion,” said Purcaro. “But now Gizmo is doing an increasingly important job these days, helping us recover from the pandemic.”
It’s a critical mission.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, youth suicide rates hit record highs in America. It is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 10 to 24 today. An average of 130 young people are killed every week. Over the past year, the CDC has noted a worrying increase in hospital visits for pediatric mental emergencies.
“And I think we’ll see that continue to increase after the pandemic,” said Sue Nash-Ditzel, director of the Crystal Lake School in Ellington. “Our students are certainly resilient, but they are affected by the pandemic. So mental health and wellbeing will be at the core of what we really do here in public education. “
That’s why Crystal Lake is one of the dozen local schools already implementing Gizmo’s Pawesome Guide to Mental Health, a mental health literacy curriculum carefully developed by mental health professionals that includes a book “told” by Gizmo.
After a successful pilot run in more than 100 Connecticut classrooms in 2017, the curriculum was recently adapted for a national roll-out through a partnership with the United Way, state agencies, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The book has two main goals, explains United Way’s Heather Spada, one of the psychiatrists who helped shape the curriculum: to teach students effective strategies for dealing with difficult emotions and to find trustworthy adults to confide in.
“When studying suicide prevention, especially in young people, what we call a protective factor is at least one very strong connection with a trusted adult in their life,” Spada said. “It really helps to keep the path to suicide from actually happening because it gives them this strong connection and a different perspective in their life where they can be connected.”
After a special visit from Gizmo and Handler Jen Adams, Crystal Lake fourth grader Aydinn Jewell shared what he had learned from the book.
“When you’re feeling stressed, or sad, or angry, or worried, there are three things you can do to help you feel better, such as: Take a nap, listen to music or paint a picture, ”said the 9-year-old while stroking Gizmo. “It really helped me be more confident.”
“My favorite thing about Gizmo is that he’s not just a dog that’s only here to be cute. He is here to help with our sanity. And mental health is one of the most important things to focus on, especially during a pandemic like COVID, ”added classmate Brooke Voit.
Photos: Therapy dog helps children cure pandemic
Gizmo’s Guide was originally developed in conjunction with the State Agency for Substance Abuse and Mental Health (SAMSHA), which was funded by the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction (DMHAS). In honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month in May, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention launched a nationwide interactive read-along program on behalf of the CT Suicide Advisory Board in collaboration with DMHAS and the United Way of CT / 2-1-1.
“Mental health is just as important as physical health – it is part of everyone’s overall health picture,” said DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, recently nominated by President Joe Biden as deputy secretary for drug abuse and mental health administration . “As we read this book to children, we become more aware that as adults we must be aware of all of children’s thoughts and feelings and their ability to process them. Children may not always know what to call their feelings. Gizmo provides a common language for children and their trusted adults to have important conversations with, and the CTSAB is delighted to be working with the AFSP to make this resource widely available and support them nationwide. “
To learn more about Gizmo’s Pawesome Guide to Mental Health, visit www.gizmo4mentalhealth.org.