Can Pets Help with Our Mental Health? A discussion with Jon Davis, founder of the Empawthy Project
What is the Empawthy Project?
The Empawthy Project aims to highlight the mental health benefits of our relationship with animals through storytelling. It’s still very early so I don’t have much of a detailed roadmap of how this will grow, but my goal is to first pull the Chicago rescue and pet community together through these common experiences. I believe that with a strengthened community that can more openly talk about our mental health stories we will be able to better attract others to rescue. My long-term goal is to increase awareness among populations that are unaware of these benefits to both increase pet adoption and help human mental health.
How did it come about?
I came up with the idea around Thanksgiving 2016 when I was brainstorming ways to have a positive impact on the world. I tried to do something at the time but had no relationships in the rescue and dog community. In late 2018, I had separate conversations with Christine Nendick of Rescue in Style, Stephanie Thomas of ATA Social Club, and Jes Hardin of Real Dog Moms of Chicago. They all were very enthusiastic, supportive, and willing to help in any way they could. We began to work together to plan the first event and brought in Sarah Lauch of Live Like Roo to have a live Raise the Woof podcast, which happened on February 24 at Dovetail Brewery.
How would you describe your events?
Helping to create a safe space is one of the guiding principles for everything around Empawthy Project. The more everyone can feel comfortable to share and be present, the more we can accomplish. When I started volunteering at One Tail at a Time, I felt that safe environment that helped me both relax and make me want to keep showing up. Being open about social anxiety, for example, encourages people to be more welcoming to new people who might have those same difficulties and for those new people to be more at ease early on. You never know who is going to come in and really commit. The second event on April 23 will be an informal open forum for sharing stories. I’m not interested in having much structure at this point. I want to see what people respond to and what they want out of these events.
What did you discover from your first event?
The first event in February sold out of 35 human tickets and 10 dog tickets in about 14 hours. That was definitely a wakeup call to take this seriously. I knew on some level that these mental health experiences were common among people in the rescue community, but I did not expect to have such a strong and immediate response. Being able to reach people through the networks of everyone who helped put the event together was critical. People love their pets but mental health struggles are isolating. The first event was the first step to being able to turn those mental health struggles into a movement that can help ourselves, help each other, and help the dogs and cats that need rescue.
When you got your first RSVP what went through your mind?
I felt fairly confident that the event would sell out because Sarah Lauch’s live podcast last winter sold out. For it to happen in a single day about 7 weeks prior to the event was a bit stunning. Sarah handled ticket sales and kept sending updates throughout the day. It turned out that the hardest part about it was having to wait nearly 2 months to actually have the event, which served as the kickoff for the project. I was a little worried about keeping people interested through the winter before I actually kicked it off.
Can you share 1 or 2 hero stories that exemplify the power of “empawthy?”
I began therapy and antidepressants for depression at the age of 9. I had wanted a dog for years and my parents eventually caved after I wrote them a letter in which I talked about a dog would make me feel less lonely despite all of us being allergic to dogs. We adopted Licorice about a month before my 11th birthday. The l lowest point of my depression would come a year or two later. I remember being home alone and really thinking about what it would be like if I weren’t there. The first thought that came to my mind was Licorice looking out the window at the school bus in the afternoon, which he anticipated every day, and not seeing me get off. That more than anything broke my heart. Licorice taught me how to get outside of my own depressed mind and think of something other than myself.
Jon and Licorice
Pretend that you are having a panic attack. Your pet senses it and comes to you. Describe what physiological reactions your mind and body feel from their presence.
Thankfully I do not suffer from panic attacks myself, but something I learned from others who do have panic attacks is that it can actually help to think of the physical effects that it has on their dogs. Some people will focus on their dog instead of themselves, see that their own anxiety causes stress in their dogs, and they have learned how to slow down and deal with that anxiety by focusing on minimizing the impact of their dog. I never would have thought of that. Others have talked about how helpful it is to have something else there to keep them
calm through physical contact and to begin to slow down by focusing on their pet’s heartbeat.
I think this is something that should make sense to just about anyone and there have been studies to show similar benefits, but having people talk about their personal experiences really shows how important the relationship between human and pet is for both serious events and day-to-day life.
This symbiotic relationship between dogs and humans is real but many mental health professionals do not recognize personal pets because they don’t have the same formal training as therapy animals. What do you say to that?
I’ve heard from people who have left a therapist because they didn’t understand this relationship, including the importance of Emotional Support Animals. When the Empawthy Project gets built up, I really want to make an effort to reach out to the mental health professional community to talk about the importance of animals. I want to see not just therapists be more understanding of their clients whose animals play an important part in their lives, but also have them actively recommend adopting an animal or finding a service animal to those who are otherwise not (yet) pet people or don’t know about these benefits.
There is now scientific research emerging to support animal therapy. Can you comment on some recent studies?
There are pet industry groups like the Human Animal Bond Research Institute that fund studies on the positive impacts that pets have on humans, including mental health, Autism Spectrum Disorder, blood pressure, heart health, etc. Whenever I see a new study it all makes immediate sense. But I don’t think that communicating these studies to the public is the best way to actually inspire people to get a pet. Personal stories have depth, nuance, and emotion that I think will resonate with people more so than anything else. If a parent of a depressed
child, for example, hears a brief news story about how pets help with depression, I don’t think there is a great chance that they will seriously consider that as an option for their situation. If, however, they hear a personal story that mirrors their own situation, it’s my belief that those details will cause that parent to seriously consider pet adoption.
You are very open about your own mental health. How does that help or hinder you in gaining support for the organization?
I’ve thought about this a lot. For a long time I’ve struggled with the idea that I am not the right person to do this. That feeling is still hanging around. But there has been this weird combination of being a guy (not common in the rescue community) in my mid-30s who has really struggled with mental health in the past but having the worst behind me while also being very shy historically. The sense of belonging I felt in the One Tail at a Time community has meant the world to me and really helped me build momentum.
As I’ve started to talk about myself, two things have happened. The first is that I’ve seen that while I’m past the worst of my mental health struggles, a lot of people are not. I’m in a better position to encourage this dialogue than most. The second is that the more I do and expose of myself, the more positive feedback I’ve gotten. It’s a bit uncomfortable but I’ve never felt that before. My entire life has basically been me never leaving home and now I’ve gotten to know so many people only because I’ve extended myself. That shyness and social anxiety is still there, but I’ve learned that I can actually become friends and work with really cool, inspiring people if I extend myself.
Being in my mid-30s, not having luck with being shy and private, and seeing
how much suffering there is in the world has made me reach a point where I care a lot less about risking embarrassing myself if it means I can reach or help others. Being a guy makes me stand out a lot, the thought of which would terrify me in the past, but I’ve gotten to the point where I just don’t really care anymore. I’m in a privileged position in a lot of ways and it would be a huge waste to not use that to try and make a difference.
How has not having a formal education in the mental health field or experience in the non-profit world worked to your advantage in creating this organization?
I’m starting with the solution rather than the problem. That’s not to say that pets are a cure for mental health struggles or work for everyone, but I know the kind of impact that pets can have and that there are a lot of people out there who have experienced the same. I would love more connections and a better idea of how to execute my ideas, but I feel like I’m carrying an undeniable truth that can save both people and pets in need. I can try things without feeling tied to a specific way of doing things. My mother is actually a psychiatrist and I know how many
studies and pharmaceutical messaging there is on a weekly basis. This is a different approach, though, and I’m hoping that it stands out.
For anxiety, CBD oil is proving to be a good alternative to drug therapy. What are your thoughts?
I’ve treated my mental health struggles most of my life with a combination of a lot of things, from talk therapy and medicine to dogs and exercise. It’s really important for everyone to understand that one kind of therapy is not going to help as much as having a lot of different things to in various areas of your life. We should all be looking into different ways of taking better care of ourselves and build an arsenal of sorts based on trial.
You have created a grassroots movement that could grow into a worldwide organization helping millions of people. What is your ultimate personal goal?
I wish I could answer this. Really I just want to make a positive impact on the world. Millions suffer from mental health struggles and millions of pets are euthanized in the US every year. I want people to know that pet adoption to help such struggles is a potentially life-saving and transformative option.
Did you ever feel that Empawthy Project may have been your destiny?
During my treatment of my eating disorder I was told to think of it as having served a purpose at one point in my life. It was there as a coping mechanism to other struggles in my life. The idea that maybe my childhood depression and other mental health issues may end up being an asset in the long run has been something that I’ve started to think about during this process. I’ve already become friends with people because of the Empawthy Project.
I’ve struggled personally and professionally with how to help people rather than just have a corporate job that has no benefit to anyone. It seems unlikely that the Empawthy Project will ever be something off of which I can make a living and really devote the attention equivalent as a full-time job, but it has helped to push me to quit my job and seek out something that will have that impact.
How has working on the project changed you?
The Empawthy Project has given me some direction and responsibility to make a positive impact on the world in a specific way for maybe the first time in my life. It has allowed me to be more at ease with my struggles beneath the surface and actually be more social as a result. There is often a feeling of “oh, you, too?” when I talk to others and having their support and positivity toward what Empawthy Project is trying to accomplish has been really special.
What’s the biggest difference you’ve made in someone else’s life, so far?
I don’t know at this point. I’m hoping that more and more people will feel a greater sense of belonging by knowing that there are a lot of others in the rescue and pet community who have similar mental health struggles. Greater senses of belonging lead to more participation and investment. But it all feels very early at this point. I would love to find out one day that someone changed their life for the better by adopting a pet after being informed and inspired by the Empawthy Project.
What help right now do you need to grow the organization?
People have offered up ideas and connections based on their own background which can be really helpful. I’m not much of a take charge person with a strict vision of how I want things to go, so I’m always looking for feedback and suggestions. The most important thing right now, though, is for people to share their stories. I have started to use the website to primarily host personal stories of people who suffer from various mental health issues. The more stories there are, the more people will want to participate and the greater visibility the project will
have. You can find more details on how to submit a story here:
At the end of the day, what do you say to yourself?
Aside from begging my dog to let me sleep, I’ve felt a difference in my self-esteem and self-love. There have been a several factors in that, of which Empawthy Project is one, but they’re all connected. I still struggle with how I feel about myself, but there is an undeniable momentum that I’ve never felt before.
Jon and Lakeside