He’s just three and a half pounds, but the topics K-9 Gizmo is taking on couldn’t be heavier - mental health struggles and alarming rates of suicide among young people. Now the Connecticut-based pooch is the face of a new mental health curriculum available to schools across America.
With 10 years on the job as a therapy dog for first responders with the nonprofit K9 First Responders, the 11-year-old pup is no stranger to helping folks feel better, Vernon town administrator Michael Purcaro said.
“Gizmo has been with us since 2011 for the ‘Snowtober,’ all the way to recently the home explosion,” Purcaro said. “But now Gizmo is fulfilling a more and more important duty these days, which is helping us recover from the pandemic.”
It’s a critical mission.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of youth suicide in America reached record levels. It is now the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24, with an average of 130 young lives lost every week. In the last year, the CDC has tracked a concerning rise in hospital visits for pediatric mental health emergencies.
“And I think we’re going to see that continue to go up after the pandemic,” Sue Nash-Ditzel, principal at Crystal Lake School in Ellington said. “Our students are resilient, for sure, but they have been impacted by the pandemic. So, mental health and wellness is going to be the crux of what we do here in public education, really.”
That’s why Crystal Lake is among the dozens of local schools already implementing “Gizmo’s Pawesome Guide to Mental Health,” a mental health literacy curriculum carefully developed by mental health professionals, featuring a book “narrated” 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 mental health professionals who helped shape the curriculum: Teaching students effective strategies to deal with tough feelings, and identifying trusted adults they can confide in.
“When you study suicide prevention, especially with young people, them having at least one very strong connection with a trusted adult in their lives is what we call a protective factor,” Spada said. “It really helps to insulate the pathway down to suicide from really from happening because it gives them that strong connection and another perspective right in their life where they can be connected, so the trusted adult piece was so critical for us to emphasize in the book.”
After a special visit from Gizmo and handler Jen Adams, Crystal Lake fourth grader, Aydinn Jewell, shared what he learned from the book.
“If you feel stressed out or sad or mad or worried, you could do three things that will make you feel better, like you can take a nap, listen to music or draw a picture,” the 9-year-old said while petting Gizmo. “He really helped me to be more confident.”
“My favorite thing about Gizmo is, he's not only a dog that's just here to be cute. He's here to help with our mental health. 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 Kids Heal From Pandemic
Gizmo's Guide was originally developed with federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) state youth suicide prevention funding received by the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS). In honor of May being National Mental Health Awareness Month, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention launched a nationwide interactive Read-Along program in partnership with DMHAS and the United Way of CT/2-1-1 on behalf of the CT Suicide Advisory Board.
"Mental health is just as important as physical health – it's all a part of everyone's overall health picture," said DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon who was recently nominated by President Joe Biden as the assistant secretary for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "By reading this book to children it makes us more mindful that, as adults, we all need to be aware of children's thoughts and feelings, and their ability to process them. Children may not always know what to call what they're feeling. Gizmo gives children and their trusted adults a shared language for having important conversations, and the CTSAB is so pleased to partner with the AFSP to make this resource broadly available to support them nationwide."
To learn more about Gizmo's Pawesome Guide to Mental Health, visit www.gizmo4mentalhealth.org.