More U.S. first responders died from suicide than in the line of duty last year, according to a recent report by the Ruderman Family Foundation. Gwendolyn Coley wants to change that.
The Fort Valley social worker is CEO of The PEACH Pit, a nonprofit center where clients step outside of the therapist’s office to work through obstacles. The PEACH Pit, a branch of the Peach County Equine Assisted Counseling and Health Center, offers equine-assisted psychotherapy, in which a mental health professional, an equine specialist and one or more horses all help the client to overcome challenges affecting their mental health.
“We believe that the clients come to us with the ability to solve their own problems,” Coley said. “We just facilitate it.”
On Friday, The PEACH Pit hosted its third event catered towards first responders, who Coley said often struggle with mental health but are wary to ask for help.
And though police-involved shootings garner widespread attention from the media, police suicides rarely make it into the news, Coley said.
At least 103 firefighters and 140 police officers died from suicide in 2017. Researchers estimate those numbers could be even higher because family members often choose not to report their loved ones’ cause of death.
“We’re trying to prevent that,” Coley said. “We’re trying to give first responders an outlet — a safe outlet — where they can work through their stuff.”
It can be hard for first responders to ask for help, Coley said. When an issue arises, she said, they might hesitate to open up to a therapist.
“They may get to a therapist and say, ‘I’m OK. I’m ready to go back to work. Nope, I’m not having any difficulty sleeping. Nope, my mood is OK. Nope, I’m not drinking too much. Nope. Nope. I’m fine,” Coley said. “Because they want to go back to work and they don’t want to be labeled as being mentally unstable.”
Equine-assisted psychotherapy, overseen by the international nonprofit organization Eagala, offers an alternative solution. Unlike in traditional mental health counseling, the Eagala model involves less talking and more action and observation. Clients can reflect and process without having to say a word.
“It is therapy, but they’re hanging out with horses, so it’s very different. That kind of helps to destigmatize it a bit,” Coley said. “And we’re not asking them to come here to tell us about that event that happened that caused them to come to therapy. We’re asking them to come here and be in the here and now.”
Horses can be easier to work with than people, said Paige Jobe, an equine specialist and owner of Spirit’s Quest in Roberta. Jobe and Coley work together for many of their counseling sessions, with Jobe acting as the horse specialist and Coley as the mental health professional.
“They read body language. They read energy. And they don’t come with a lot of baggage,” Jobe said. “So when you interact with a horse, they give you an opportunity to try out new behaviors that you can’t necessarily — or, it can be difficult to do with the people in your life.”
Anyone can benefit from equine-assisted therapy, Jobe said. She works primarily with children, while Coley focuses mostly on adults. The key, Jobe said, is an open mind. Equine-assisted therapy can help with conditions like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and clients also can attend sessions in conjunction with talk therapy, Jobe said.
The approach is typically short-term and solution-focused. After six to 12 weeks, clients are usually ready to move on.
Shannon Singletary was the sole first responder to attend the first responders event Friday morning. Coley had invited local police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and sheriff’s deputies to a free demonstration, which she hoped might inspire them to come back for a therapy session.
After two hours with the horses, Singletary was hooked. As office manager of Palms Medical Transport in Byron, the EMT spends her days fielding phone calls and navigating emergencies.
When her office decided to send a representative to the event, Singletary was curious. She had never heard of equine-assisted therapy before and didn’t know what to expect. By the end of demonstration, though, she was ready to bring her kids and co-workers for a session.
“It works,” Singletary said.
Coley and Jobe led Singletary through a series of activities to reduce anxiety. Singletary held her palm to a horse’s ribs to feel its breathing. Then she made a path with pool noodles meant to represent a normal day at work, and tried, without success, to guide a horse through the winding maze.
Singletary didn’t expect the experience to be so emotionally intense, but at times she felt a lump forming in the back of her throat. Singletary doesn’t like to talk about her feelings. With the horses, though, she could work through her emotions without bearing her soul.
“In a sense, you’re beating around the bush, but you’re still getting it out,” Singletary said. “You’re feeling those feelings again. You’re processing those feelings, but you’re not actually having to say what it is that’s going on.”
‘A mirror for their emotions’
Equine-assisted psychotherapy has been around for about two decades, and the field is growing, said Laura Murphy, manager of the equestrian center at Wesleyan College.
Wesleyan offers a minor in equine-assisted therapy, taught by mental health counselor Susan Jung. Now in its second year, the program has three students, who all hope to incorporate horses into their therapy practice.
Jung and her students spend about half of their time in the classroom and the other half out in the arena, getting hands-on experience with the horses.
“I know I personally always feel, like, less stressed and more centered after the sessions,” said Samantha Camp, a Wesleyan senior studying psychology and equine therapy. “And it just really reinforces the idea behind it.”
Jung, who also practices traditional psychotherapy, thinks equine-assisted therapy is the most effective form of mental health counseling she’s ever used. She got her Eagala certification about 18 years ago, and she’s seen firsthand the life-changing impact it has had on her clients.
“I think people don’t realize how effective that this work can be — that the horses can create, kind of, a mirror for their emotions and help them sort through a lot of their issues in life,” Jung said.
She once watched a child stand paralyzed in the arena, unsure of how to create an obstacle course, as Jung had asked her to do.
“Then all the sudden, the horse came over and started moving things around the arena, and then went back and stood by her,” Jung said. “And she looked back at me and said, ‘I guess I should ask for help more often,’ and that was her — that was her learning for the day.”
Coley wishes more people knew about equine-assisted psychotherapy because she thinks it would help them prioritize their mental health. She said people don’t hobble around and refuse treatment when they break their leg, so they shouldn’t put off mental health care, either.
Mental health should be thought of as a basic need, like food and shelter, Coley said. That’s why she works with patients to ensure that payment never inhibits anyone from getting the care they need.
The PEACH Pit doesn’t accept insurance, but Coley offers what she calls an “equity payment plan,” which allows clients to pay what they can — even nothing at all — based on their insurance status and income.
“We don’t penalize anybody because they can’t pay,” she said.
Coley’s determined to help others, especially groups whose mental health often gets overlooked. She served for 25 years in the Army and Army Reserve and is particularly interested in bringing equine-assisted therapy to other veterans.
“It’s just my way of giving back to a community that has supported me for decades,” she said.
Like first responders, veterans often suffer from PTSD and other mental health issues but are reluctant to seek out therapy.
“I know the power of these horses in helping people,” Coley said. “I want to use this to help.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.