Harvard Men's Health Watch

Medical memo: Dolphins for the doldrums?

Medical memo

Dolphins for the doldrums?

Depression is a common problem, and it can be a very serious illness. According to various studies, between 5% and 12% of American adults experience a struggle with depression during any given year. Fortunately, many effective treatments are available, ranging from medication to psychotherapy; milder cases may also respond to herbs and exercise. Whatever the treatment, strong social support is a great asset. In most cases, it is provided by friends, relatives, and colleagues. But without denigrating the value of human contact, doctors in England have proposed a novel treatment relying on contact with marine mammals.

Dolphins as therapists?

One study asked if animal-facilitated therapy could assist in the treatment of depression. The patients were 30 adults with mild to moderate depression without psychotic features. The "therapists" were bottlenose dolphins housed at the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences in Honduras.

None of the patients were taking psychiatric medications at the time. Each volunteer took a battery of three psychological tests before and after the two-week trial. Half the participants were randomly assigned to play with, swim with, and care for the dolphins for an hour a day. The control group engaged in similar outdoor water activities for an hour a day.

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