Mental illness has always been somewhat taboo in society today. I believe now is the time to shed some more light on the subject to raise awareness. Studies have shown, “Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S” (“Depression” 1). Out of all the mental illnesses, depression stands high above the rest with outrageous rates. To put this into perspective, depression stands as 99% of all mental illnesses (“Facts about Depression” 1). Depression has been rearing its ugly head in society for years without getting enough recognition. “In 2012, an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year”. The numbers are stacked against us, so it’s valuable to have an understanding of an illness that is so prevalent, and also the options for the treatment of depression. It is estimated that 6.9 percent of the population of America has experienced a depressive state this year alone (Kauffman 1). While many believe that depression is just a period where you stew in sadness and debilitating grief, it is seldom understood that there are opportunities to relieve the pain through therapy. There are a vast number of unique forms of therapy for depression, but two that have really shone through are therapeutic riding and equine-facilitated psychotherapy.
While depression is so common amongst the nation, it is a somewhat tricky diagnosis. Getting fired or dumped can feel like depression, and a loss is devastating. Everyone has felt sadness and grief throughout their lives as humans and the severity of emotions is individualized. Being sad is not depression. So what is extreme sadness? It is fairly subjective. To put some constraints on what can be considered depression it is required that the symptoms extend for periods of two weeks or more to be classified as depression. Mourning periods often last longer than two weeks but don’t indicate depression because the sadness doesn’t correspond with the self-loathing that depression usually brings (“What Is Depression?” 2). The line between emotion and dysfunction is drawn when it starts to interfere with everyday function.
Major depressive disorder is defined in Oxford’s dictionary as “a mental disorder characterized by a persistently depressed mood and long-term loss of pleasure or interest in life, often with other symptoms such as disturbed sleep, feelings of guilt or inadequacy, and suicidal thoughts” (“Major Depressive Disorder” 1). Depression can show a variety of different symptoms. Not all the symptoms will be expressed in every case. The most staple symptoms are: feelings of constant sadness, some described feeling “empty” or hopeless, feeling guilt or worthlessness, and showing less interest in life or lack of energy and more fatigue. Once again these symptoms must be active for at least two weeks. More examples of symptoms that depression may express include difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, trouble concentrating or remembering, and weight changes (“Depression”1). Difficulty concentrating or remembering is often found in those with depression (“What Is Depression?” 1). The most dangerous and harmful effect of depression, some experience thoughts of death or suicide (“Depression”1). It’s understandably difficult to make sense of what it really means to be depressed, the symptoms coincide with the painful realities of life, except they are actually much more intense. A quote from someone with diagnosed depression gives some insight into what it feels like, “People think depression is sadness, people think depression is crying, people think depression is dressing in black, but people are wrong. Depression is the constant feeling of being numb, being numb to emotions, you wake up in the morning just to go to bed again” (Amatenstein 1). The depressive state is said to feel like darkness constantly and is beyond sadness. It is described as having feelings deep down behind a throbbing wall of numbness. It’s important to understand the severity of the condition.
There are many different possible causes of depression that range from environmental and biological factors. A family history of depression will greatly increase the chances of being depressed. Specific medical conditions can also impact the likelihood of becoming depressed. Thyroid conditions as well as any chronic illnesses or sleep deprivation can be causes of depressive symptoms. A traumatic event is also a common factor for those who have been diagnosed with depression. Substance abuse is a huge factor for depression, “Nearly 30% of people with substance abuse problems also have major or clinical depression” (Bhandari 2). The causes of depression are difficult to pinpoint exactly because according to Harvard research it stems from a chemical imbalance in the brain but because the brain is so complex and involves millions of different chemical reactions that impact mood and emotion that can show similar symptoms (Harvard Health Publishing 1).
Depression comes with a plethora of dysfunctions that impair everyday life. Major Depressive Disorder’s primary dysfunctions are in the cognitive category. “Cognitive dysfunction refers to deficits in attention, verbal and nonverbal learning, short-term and working memory, visual and auditory processing, problem-solving, processing speed, and motor functioning” (Lam et al 1). There were several other differences in neuro-activity between a depressed brain and a healthy functioning brain. Motivation, fatigue, insomnia, and mood disturbances are more frequently recorded in depressed brains.
There are also dysfunctions involved in psychosocial health. “Psychosocial functioning reflects a person’s ability to perform the activities of daily living and to engage in relationships with other people in ways that are gratifying to him and others, and that meets the demands of the community in which the individual lives” (Mittal et al 1). Those with depression have shown issues with reading facial emotions and interpret them incorrectly. “Research has identified that social cognition may be impaired in individuals with depression” (Knight et al 1). “Psychosocial functioning reflects a person’s ability to perform the activities of daily living and to engage in relationships with other people in ways that are gratifying to him and others, and that meets the demands of the community in which the individual lives” (Mittal et al 1).
Because depression has such a high rate of occurrence and entails many dysfunctions that inhibit the person’s ability to operate, depression has had a very negative effect on the working class. Three more ways that cognitive dysfunction can interfere with work performance include interpersonal relationships, productivity, as well as safety. Interpersonal relationships in the workplace can suffer from the depression symptoms of social withdrawal, the appearance of irritation, and negativity (Mittal et al 1). Depression dysfunctions can be dastardly to careers as they often decrease productivity, and decrease attendance at the workplace. Lastly, psychosocial dysfunction can even pose a safety risk due to the greater risk of injury found in people with diagnosed depression (Lam et al 1).
Depression can appear to be crippling but there are many forms of treatment out there that can help the participants. Two such possible forms of treatment are Therapeutic riding and Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy.
Horses are extremely healing animals and carry many therapeutic traits. The rhythmic and repetitive movement promotes neuroplasticity and cognitive functioning.
“Horses promote asking for and accepting help” which is essential for relationships of those with depression (“My Site” 1). “ Even the ancient Greeks noticed how both unstable and “typical” people seemed calmer and happier when interacting with a horse” (Disabled World 1).
Therapeutic riding as PATH describes it, is “an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs” (Smith 1). The empty and persistent emotions that those with depression battle consistently can have some relief with the help of horses. Therapeutic riding has been used for many different cases to promote growth and acceptance for riders who need it. There are people all over the world who have reaped the benefits of therapeutic riding.
Therapeutic riding is a great way for people with depression to get out of the house and socially interact with others going through the same things in an inclusive and exciting activity. Depression often causes people to stay in the house and they often gain weight due to lack of exercise and therapeutic riding is an excellent source of building muscles and increasing flexibility. Horses are prey and herd animals that evolved to have a strong emotional sense and are able to feed off the other horses. If one horse is scared it does not take long before the others will pick up on it (“The Therapeutic Value of Horses” 1). Horses are able to do this similar to people and can pick up on their emotions so it requires the riders to become very emotionally sensitive and work through the difficult memory to successfully work with horses. Depression is a very emotional disability and a horse’s ability to mirror what others feel makes them excellent partners for those with depression and is helpful for working through the feelings of guilt and burdens of sadness they struggle with. Therapeutic riding can also benefit the cognitive functioning of people who have depression, the natural movement of the horse is great for stimulating new neural pathways. “ Therapeutic riding offers a motivational opportunity to improve concentration, attention span, memory, communication, decision making, problem-solving, sequencing, patience, judgment and insight development” (“The Benefits of Therapeutic Riding” 1). Therapeutic riding also incorporates teaching skills and learning about the animal which can give a sense of accomplishment as well as hone a new ability. This is especially valuable for depression cases because they often struggle with self-worth and learning a new skill can give some more confidence. Depression can also impact the level of interest people have in their life and therapeutic riding can serve as a new and exciting activity that may encourage a greater appreciation for life itself.
I admit that there may be some dysfunctions involved with people with depression. For example, if they are suicidal or having suicidal thoughts that is a contraindication for therapeutic riding. People with depression also may be more prone to injury and maybe severely careless to the point of harm to the animal or others and that would be a contraindication as well. But, the benefits of the activity greatly outweigh the possible limitations.
Another variation of equine activities that can prove beneficial is equine-facilitated psychotherapy. “EFP is defined as an interactive process in which a licensed mental health professional working with or as an appropriately credentialed equine professional partners with suitable equine(s) to address psychotherapy goals set forth by the mental health professional and the client”(Smith 1). EFP differs from the other equine-assisted activities because it incorporates the use of a licensed therapist as well as an equine instructor, this is an added bonus to the treatment because the therapist is able to further improve the psychological functioning of the clients while incorporating the horses natural healing ability. Equine-assisted psychotherapy is extremely useful to show improvement in areas of emotional awareness which is very valuable for people who have been diagnosed with depression. Many clients who partake in equine-facilitated psychotherapy have shown positive growth in assertiveness, social skills, as well as confidence (Schimelpfening 1). A study showed that participants with depression in equine-facilitated psychotherapy improved drastically in “ increased confidence, self-esteem, assertiveness, and resourcefulness, They also saw improvements in emotional regulation and self-control and decreases in undesirable behaviors” (Wilson 1 ). Equine facilitated psychotherapy is also a good tool for those coping with trauma, which is commonly associated with depression so getting to the root of the issue will often lead to some relief in the depression (Bhandari 1).
Therapeutic riding and Equine Facilitated psychotherapy are effective options for working with depression. They are able to utilize all the benefits of the horse and use them in treatment to get social interactions as well as gain self-confidence. The activities really motivate the clients to get out of the house and get exercise.