Approximately 14.3 percent of youth in the United States struggle with mood disorders (youth.gov). These disorders can lead to a variety of other behaviors—acting out, substance abuse, trouble in school, promiscuity, self-harming behaviors, withdrawing, violence, and more. Having a teenager who struggles with any type of mood disorder can take a real toll on parents. Many people may not know that finding help for their struggling teen may be as simple as putting them in touch with one of nature’s best and most natural therapists—the horse.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of mood disorders and bipolar disorder include things such as “unusual mood changes along with unusual sleep habits, activity levels, thoughts, or behavior. In a child, these mood and activity changes must be very different from their usual behavior and from the behavior of other children. A person with bipolar disorder may have manic episodes, depressive episodes, or “mixed” episodes. A mixed episode has both manic and depressive symptoms. These mood episodes cause symptoms that last a week or two or sometimes longer. During an episode, the symptoms last every day for most of the day” (nimh.nih.gov).
As stated on NIH.gov, children and teens who are having a manic episode may:
- Feel very happy or act silly in a way that’s unusual for them and for other people their age.
- Have a very short temper.
- Talk really fast about a lot of different things.
- Have trouble sleeping but not feel tired.
- Have trouble staying focused.
- Talk and think about sex more often.
- Do risky things.
Children and teens experiencing a depressive episode may:
- Feel very sad.
- Complain about pain a lot, such as stomachaches and headaches.
- Sleep too little or too much.
- Feel guilty and worthless.
- Eat too little or too much.
- Have little energy and no interest in fun activities.
- Think about death or suicide.
Recent studies have shown that high levels of cortisol can lead to and worsen depression and mood disorders. A study published by Umeå University in 2014 showed that low levels of cortisol (a hormone linked to stress) can lead to an increased incidence of depression (sciencedaily.com). Based off of this information, a separate study was done to determine what effect horses had on teenagers and their levels of cortisol. A randomized study was done to determine the effect an 11-week equine facilitated learning program had on a random group of teenagers, and compared it to a separate group of teenagers not participating in the equine program. At the end of the study, it was determined that the level of cortisol in the teens who spent time engaging with the horses was lower than those teens who did not participate in the program. The study stated, a “recent review on the psychophysiological implications of human-animal interaction suggests that human-animal interaction, and possibly human-equine interaction, may modulate physiological stress parameters through their connection with the oxytocin system. For example, several investigators have noted significant increases in oxytocin levels in human plasma levels after as little as three minutes of physically interacting (e.g. stroking) with a dog, with effects depending on the relationship quality between the human-dog pair. Similarly, physical interactions that ‘tap into’ caregiving and grooming behaviors have also been associated with increases in oxytocin in human-to-human contact” (wsu.edu).
This research shows the positive effects horses and other animals can have on improving moods and lowering levels of depression. Spending time with a horse—grooming it, petting it, riding it, walking it, caring for it—all have the ability to help reduce stress and anxiety and to improve moods. Finding an organized equine facilitated learning program for a struggling teen may have a significant effect on helping traverse the difficult terrain that comes with raising a teenager with mood disorders. Equine therapy and related programs are becoming more popular in today’s society. Check out www.equine-psychotherapy.com to find organizations in your area that can provide therapeutic equestrian programs for your teen.