Loneliness changes our interpersonal neurobiology (increased cortisol for example) making secondary concerns of depression, anxiety and addiction more likely.
As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Rover.com’s Human Animal Behavioral Expert, Phil Tedeschi. Philip Tedeschi is the Executive Director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver within the Graduate School of Social Work. Philip’s research, scholarship, and community engagement have focused on the connection between people and animals. He teaches graduate level courses in human-animal interaction, animal welfare, human ecology, ecological bio-affiliation, social justice and international social work. He is recognized for expertise in all aspects of the human-animal bond and the clinical methods for Animal Assisted Interventions. Philip also coordinates the school’s Animal-Assisted Social Work Certificate specialization as well as the Global Animals and Human Health program.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice, including working with Rover?
I am a professor of social work at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, Executive Director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection and serve as Rover.com’s Animal-Human Behavioral Expert.
What led me to my current career was studying the transformational impact that animals have on human health or what I refer to as Bio-Affiliation. Over the last 30 years, I have had the opportunity to explore the health promoting and bio-affiliative dimensions of human-animal interaction all over the world. It has resulted in deep exploration into the nature of human-animal connection and without question has significant implications for the study of loneliness and isolation. This exploration has taught me that animals offer some of our most reliable and consistent forms of social support and that human beings are not the only ones who can offer meaningful connection and support. It has also taught me that animals are important in all cultures and across the human lifespan.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The capacity of human-animal interactions to play a central role in the building of healthy relationship is, at once, ancient and un-appreciated. One of the interesting experiences that I have had occurred in the process of working with my professional therapy dog, Samara, and we were trying to reach chronically mentally ill peoeple who experience homelessness in Denver, Colorado. This activity occurred while writing a book on the role that animals play in responding to trauma, entitled: Transforming Trauma- Resiliency and Healing through our Connection with Animals.
The street outreach work began because there was a group of chronically homeless individuals that were difficult to build functional relationships with by mental health teams and law enforcement. They simply did not trust people, especially people in authority or with power. They were profoundly isolated, even at times from other people who were homeless. With the use of a safe dog, we were able to establish functional relationships with these people, even those who were experiencing serious mental health symptoms. Often within a few moments, someone who was unwilling to communicate would say, “What’s her name? What kind of dog is she? Did you know I use to have a dog that I loved?”
The science involved in the therapeutic potential impact of a safe dog on the interpersonal neurobiology of an individual, gave impetus to trying this canine assisted street outreach intervention. In the co-evolution of humankind and animals, dogs, in specific, were major ‘regulators’ for humans. For possibly 40–60,000 years, humans and dogs have co-evolved with each other. When a known dog is present, and projecting non-verbal, nurturing signals, part of the human brain knows, ‘the camp is safe.’ It stands to reason then, that the human-animal connection could be used for therapeutic purposes. One explanation for these profound transformations in interpersonal connection lies in understanding the neurobiology of security. For example, oxytocin may be released in humans when in the presence of a safe relationship, including animal relationships. Researchers have found that the release of oxytocin to be responsible for social affiliation and support, attachment security, capacity for trust, sharing emotions, and more.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I have been studying the human health significance of our relationship with animals from a micro to macro perspective and through the lenses of theories such as Social Support and The One Health Model.
The Social Support Theory proposes that animals provide both direct and indirect support to humans. In a direct way, animals act as sources of non-judgmental support and perceived unconditional positive regard. Indirectly, animals act as social lubricants or facilitators of interaction between humans. Not only is a lack of social support one of the strongest predictors of developing numerous health concerns, perceived social support also plays a critical role in the recovery from any number of physical and mental health related challenges. Social support is a key benefit of animal companionship. A positive relationship with an animal may provide a unique form of companionship, as well as beneficial social support that may be unavailable or unsolicited from human social interaction. As a social facilitator, the presence of an animal may help to foster social engagement and reconnection with society. Increasingly, research suggests that connections to animals has a positive impact on human emotional health, providing overall emotional support, and correlates with reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress.
The One Health Model takes a social-ecological systems perspective of health by recognizing that human, animal and environmental health are interconnected. Achieving positive and sustained change on many of today’s most pressing social issues calls for an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the social-ecological systems and the underlying connection between people, animals and the environment that contribute to the resilience of a community and its individuals. Addressing isolation and loneliness through this model provides a useful foundation from which to advocate for governance policies that promote the collective welfare of all living things.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
As a social worker and psychotherapist, I have spent my entire career focused on what we generally consider support systems and the ecological modelworking within a construct that social workers ca;ll “ Person in Environut” Ecological theory is fundamentally concerned with the interaction and interdependence of organisms and their environment. Likewise, the profession of social work was built upon an acknowledgement that individuals, families, groups and communities interact with their environments and are shaped by them. Individuals do not operate in isolation but are influenced by their physical and social environments in which they live and interact. Taking an ecological perspective towards social work practice involves taking into consideration a person and the environment around her or him and is referred to as the “person-and-environment concept”.
As a social worker, a psychotherapist and a specialist on human-animal connection, I have found myself studying the conditions that allow for healthy relationships, resilient communities and thriving ecological system services. The primary models that inform my teaching, research and outreach are models that inform the ability to have and hold healthy relationships such as Social Support Theory, The One-Health Model and Social-Ecological Justice.
According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
· Loneliness changes our interpersonal neurobiology (increased cortisol for example) making secondary concerns of depression, anxiety and addiction more likely.
· By not having the connection to healthy living beings, especially animals, also changes our neurobiology (increased oxytocin and dopamine for example) making the ability to build and sustain friendships and functional social support tougher.
In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.
My hypothesis is that the loneliness epidemic is manifestation of our pain that emanates from living in a time and place where we have lost connection to living systems and each other. The question, however, really should be, “What can we each do?” Some ideas below:
· Spend time outdoors: interact and contribute to the protection of healthy and thriving ecological systems
· Show compassion to people and other animals
· Teach humane principals to our children
· Walk your dog more often, take your time, let them sniff all the way around the block
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would like to have breakfast with Dr. E.O Wilson. His remarkable career as an ecologist and naturalist has offered us the book the Biophilia Hypothesis and to me, one of the most important explorations into our relationship with all beings and the living world. His more recent focus, The Half Earth Proposition (despite being nearly 90 years old), holds our best option for protection of the planet, humans and all other animals.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!