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US Military Airmen Benefit from Mental Health Pet Therapy Program

Pug Kelty at Aviano air base italy, Mental Health Pet Therapy Program

Meet Kelty, the Mental Health Therapy Pug

During a typical day at Aviano Air Force Base (AFB), Kelty can be seen at work in this short video clip on YouTube .

The 31st Medical Operations Squadron (MDOS) at Aviano AFB launched a groundbreaking Mental Health Pet Therapy Program in 2014 – to help ease the burden of military patients suffering from a wide variety of mental health challenges and disorders. Kelty was the program’s first certified four-legged therapist.

The purpose of pet therapy is to encourage emotional support and enhance the treatment process for the Mental Health Flight (MHF) patient population,” said Master Sgt. Michael Lee, 31st MDOS MHF chief. “It has become a tremendous success.”

Kelty’s Job Description – Support Mental Health Treatment

While at work, Kelty supports the Mental Health Flight (MHF) by helping to break down patient barriers, so that patients can better receive care. Patients hold and pet Kelty to help themselves relax during therapy sessions.

Kelty is trained to provide comfort and companionship – and to assist with therapeutic treatment regimens for select patient populations,” said Lee.

Lee admits that he can’t take all the credit for adding a therapy dog to the team. “I was deployed to Afghanistan, working with the Army, when I met a psychologist who had a certified French bulldog,” said Lee. “He brought an amazing sense of calm and peace to a chaotic environment. It was a humbling experience.”

Lee was so impressed that he set about finding the organization that certified the French Bulldog.

I found the organization by searching online. Then I took the necessary steps and got Kelty certified,” said Lee. “He required a thorough physical, full immunizations and passing a rigorous temperament test. Kelty spent one day in a school classroom to see how he’d interact with children, loud noises, distractions and food. The test was what I was most nervous about, but he passed.

After certification, Kelty began serving as a member of the mental health treatment team – a calling with great demand. The rates of mental health disorders among the military are astonishing.

Rates of Military Mental Health Disorders

In the largest study of mental-health risk ever conducted among the U.S. military, almost 25% of nearly 5,500 active-duty soldiers that were surveyed tested positive for a mental disorder of some kind. Within that subgroup, 11% also tested positive for more than one illness. Some of those conditions were related to the hard experience of a wartime Army, but nearly half of the soldiers who were diagnosed with a mental disorder had it when they enlisted.

Rates vary among disorders. The rate of major depression is five times as high among soldiers as civilians; intermittent explosive disorder, which results in episodes of extreme anger, is six times as high; and post-traumatic stress disorder was nearly 15 times higher than among civilians, the study found. 

The Ultimate Mental Health Risk – Suicide

Suicide is a national public health problem. In 2010, it was the 10th leading cause of death among all Americans. It is also a global problem. More than one million people die by suicide each year, accounting for more deaths than wars and murders combined. This corresponds to one death by suicide every 40 seconds. The number of suicide attempts each year is 20 times higher than the number of suicides.

Although the rate of suicide among Active Duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces has typically been lower than that of a comparable civilian demographic, the military suicide rate has increased over the past decade.

Military life introduces particular factors that add stress to the daily lives of Airmen and their families: loved ones’ deployments, re-assignments, irregular work shifts, and the simple fact that Service members may be in harm’s way. Dual military couples may experience an even greater number of challenges, because both individuals are in the military. Military families must also carry the weight of war. Recent research has pointed out that the children of Service members may be more likely to think about suicide than their non-military peers.

Department of Defense statistics show that in 2014, there were 268 confirmed suicides among active-duty military members, 79 confirmed in the reserves and 87 in the National Guard.

Kelty Intervenes With Early Small Steps

About 23 percent of Airmen are seen in any given year in mental health or primary care for some type of mental health related reason, including issues that are not significantly impairing such as mild stress, a sleep problem, or anxiety, according to Col. (Dr.) John Forbes, the director of psychological health, Air Force Medical Support Agency in Falls Church, Virginia.

Kelty supports the Mental Health Flight (MHF) by helping to break down patient barriers

While it may seem that something as simple as a visit from a little dog could hardly make a difference in dramatic suicide rates, the experience speaks for itself.

As any dog owner knows and will tell you, dogs help promote a sense of belonging, connection and unconditional love,” Lee said. “There’s no question that Kelty brings an incredible amount of positive energy… Integrating Kelty as part of our team has been an amazing experience.

The military strongly encourages servicemen and women to seek help early, before their symptoms escalate. Early intervention helps stem the rate of progression, and little lovable Kelty often makes it much easier for military members to accept help early.

DOD Encourages Help-Seeking for Mental Health Issues

Although the Department of Defense (DoD) has made it clear that it views help-seeking behavior as a sign of strength, Service members often cite career concerns as a reason for not getting help.  However, the Department clearly affords protection to the Service member seeking help:

The entire DoD community—Service members, civilians, members of our families and leaders at every level—must demonstrate our collective resolve to prevent suicide, to promote greater knowledge of its causes, and to encourage those in need to seek support. No one who serves this country in uniform should ever feel they have nowhere to turn.” — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

Airmen Increasingly Seeking Mental Health Help

The number of Airmen seeking mental health care has increased over the last five years — and this is a trend Air Force leaders encourage, according to a lead psychiatrist with the office of the Air Force Surgeon General.

A mental health encounters report issued by the Air Force Medical Operations Agency (AFMOA) noted that the number of mental health appointments scheduled by Airmen rose from 18,858 in 2008 to 33,274 in 2013.

Since 2008, we’ve seen a gradual rise in the number of mental health visits for active duty, both in the Military Treatment Facilities and in purchased care — and we consider this positive news,” said Forbes. There are likely many reasons for this increase such as:

  • increased availability of providers,
  • better access,
  • reduced perception of stigma,
  • acceptability of evidence-based treatments, and
  • need

While the number of mental health visits has gradually increased, Air Force leadership continues to work at removing barriers to care and the perception of stigma.

Untreated Mental Health Issues in the Military

Recent data from the Air Force Community Assessment Survey suggests that one in 10 active duty members reported untreated mental health problems and that 90 percent of these personnel had no intention of seeking mental health services,” according to Lt. Col. Wendy Travis, the chief of mental health policy and program evaluation with AFMOA, Lackland Air Force Base

But the fact of the matter is that many mental health problems are very easily treated with effective evidence-based treatments,” Travis said.

Four pillars of the Air Force Comprehensive Airmen Fitness Program

Because mental fitness is paramount to coping with stressors and challenges, the Air Force’s Comprehensive Airman Fitness program cites four elements in its pillars of wellness:

  1. Mental
  2. Physical
  3. Social
  4. Spiritual

Travis said the program equips Airmen with the tools and skills to assess and adjust to their environment by maintaining a healthy balance of cognitive skill, physical endurance, emotional stamina, and spiritual well-being.

Everyone has times in their life when they have difficulty coping. Knowing when it is time to talk to someone, or get additional help, is one of the key tenants of mental fitness.

The earlier you seek assistance for problems,” says Travis, “the easier the problems are to treat and the less impact those problems have on you and those you love.”

DoD employs TMS for Major Depression

The DoD was one of the earliest adopters of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy. In February 2009, Walter Reed Army Medical Center treated its first behavioral health patient with TMS Therapy. Walter Reed is the first DoD facility to use TMS technology and one of the first U.S. facilities – along with Brown University, Columbia University and Mayo-Rochester – to adopt the equipment and capability soon after FDA clearance.

Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Grammer, Chief of Inpatient Psychiatry at Walter Reed, initiated the purchase of this equipment in line with expanding the military’s care options for its beneficiaries. “Having TMS demonstrates the Military’s willingness to bring cutting edge technology and care to the best patients in the world, our Warriors,” Dr. Grammer said. “Most importantly, we now have a new option to treat patients who have not responded to medications that has minimal side-effects and a large margin of safety.”

About Walter Reed Army Medical Center (

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is the hub of the Walter Reed Health Care System and provides comprehensive health care to more than 150,000 Service Members, retirees and their families. Walter Reed has treated over 10,000 patients from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom since the Global Wars on Terror began.

SOURCE: Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Helpful Resource:

Supporting Military Families in Crisis – A Guide to Help You Prevent Suicide

US Military Airmen Benefit from Mental Health Pet Therapy Program

Dr. Scott West

About Nashville NeuroCare Therapy: In April of 2010, Dr. West brought the technology of NeuroStar TMS to Nashville, becoming the first physician in Tennessee to offer the option of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for patients whose severe depression has not responded to a course of antidepressant medication or treatment for depression. The team at Nashville NeuroCare Therapy offers the most experience in the Tennessee-area. We have treated 550+ patients across the U.S. and administered 16,000+ TMS treatments, plus we maintain some of the highest percentages of positive patient responses and remission rates in the industry.

At Nashville NeuroCare Therapy, we deliver personalized therapy, specializing in TMS Therapy and Neurofeedback. We provide safe and well-researched therapies for depression, ADHD and sleep problems—all without the need for medication.

For more information on our therapies for Depression, ADHD and Sleep Problems, please contact us at (615) 465-4875 or or [email protected] or visit our website

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APA Reference
West, W. (2015). US Military Airmen Benefit from Mental Health Pet Therapy Program. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Dec 2015
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