Relationships can be emotionally and mentally enriching when there are no expectations, except the joy of interaction and building a bond.

Anjana Thampi, our next pathbreaker, Animal Assisted Therapist, helps people (kids & adults) of all ages with their mental health through therapy, based on their relationship and interaction with therapy animals.

Anjana talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about her desire to interact with animals from childhood never truly fading and deciding to combine both animals and psychology to make a career out of something she enjoyed doing everyday !

For students, a career should be an extension of your childhood interests. The only difference being, you not only enjoy what you do, but are also damn good at it!

Anjana, tell us about your initial years

I grew up mostly in Noida (with brief stints in Chennai, Kochi & Tanzania prior to that), working towards becoming a veterinarian for as long as I could remember. My early interests included writing and debating, but most of all, animals, especially dogs. I also found my love for Psychology in the 11th & 12th grade, my chosen alternative for Mathematics.

My first pet, a black and tan daschund was the first toe I dipped into a pool and was my first relationship with an animal. For the three plus years he was with me and my family, I had a playmate, a protector, a sibling and companion in him, and time spent with him was most precious to me. After that, there were a string of stray puppies and dogs I began interacting with, feeding and taking care of. As I grew, my love for dogs grew and to me, the most logical answer seemed to be to pursue Veterinary Sciences.

What did you study?

For my graduation, I did my Bachelors in Psychology, followed by an MSc. in Counseling Psychology, both from reputable colleges in Chennai. Initially, I thought my interests lay in Clinical Psychology; I had even applied to colleges and had meanwhile joined the counseling course while I was awaiting responses from the above colleges. However once the counseling psychology course began, I began to enjoy myself, and found immense and meaningful growth both personally and professionally.

After completing my Masters, I pursued my post-Masters training in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP or AAT), at Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado, in Denver, Colorado.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

When the time came to answer the question about how and what I wanted to do, I asked myself the simplest question I could at the time – What makes me happy, and makes me feel like springing out of bed excited and inspired everyday? What feels meaningful to me? To me, the path seemed clear then – but I ended up not qualifying for Veterinary Science seats that year. Disappointed, I turned to my next favorite subject Psychology, and flourished from the start.

However my desire to work with animals never truly faded, and when I was around 17, a close family member suggested I combine both animals and psychology and make a career out of it. That was my first encounter with the idea, and it took seed, and eventually grew into an obsession. While I pursued my higher education, I kept a fervent eye out for training programmes with experienced professionals, and most importantly a hands-on approach to teaching. And by 2015 I had located AATPC. Despite some long-drawn challenges and hiccups with documentation and visa, I made it to Denver with the support of my parents (both emotionally and financially) where I spent 18 months learning, and re-affirming my love for both animals, and psychology.

Tell us about your career path

I stumbled upon my career simply by accident, and using some amount of logic (putting 2 and 2 together about what I liked them most). By the time I was aware of this field, a few professionals were trying to grow awareness about the same (Animal Angels Foundation, Animal Angels, both based out of Mumbai). I contacted them during my Bachelors’, understood how and who they worked with, and what the specific skill sets required were. As long-term and expansive training programmes were then not available near me, I cast my net a little wider and searched for, with Google’s help, programmes in other countries.

I also had a strong intention in mind; that I wanted hands-on training that went past just books and discussions, but was experiential, to ensure that I was learning in the most relevant, and efficient manner. With this criteria in mind, I slowly eliminated multiple programmes until I arrived at one that I felt was the best choice .

At the Animal Assisted Therapy Program, I got to work with a variety of professionals as well as therapy animals, including rabbits, rats, goats and horses, apart from the typically expected dog and cat. Needless to say, to learn in the comfort of different animals, each with their own personalities and quirks, and to be mentored and peered by some very able therapists was the dream life I was living.

After my orientation period, where I observed and interacted with the staff, and my registration with the State, I began counseling clients of all ages, with a range of mental health issues (depression, anxiety, bullying, anger management etc.) and integrating the resident therapy animals into the sessions, in a goal-directed manner, that facilitated their treatment and healing, I also participated in, and managed administrative and animal-care activities; essentials in this line of work.

While at the time, I did not have the option to work and study together (due to visa restrictions) I know fellow trainees that have paid for their training through Scholarships and, self-funded through part-time jobs.

Can you explain what is AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) and how does AAT help?

As Animal Assisted Therapy was not widely known, let alone accepted as a modality of treatment, there were some initial challenges wrt meeting expectations and allaying fears of clients. However with time, and a supervisor with experience and expertise, my co-therapists and I were able to help a significant number of people with their mental health.  A major portion of the population I worked with includes children on the Autism spectrum; this means that the issues we actively worked on ranged from behavioral concerns (poor eye contact, impulsivity and/or compulsive, often repetitive behaviors or phrases, and sometimes even self-harm), developmental delays in speech and language, poor socio-emotional skills (i.e. the ability to engage in appropriate social conversation and interaction, as well as be aware of emotions, both their own and others’) and training to increase their attention and focus on tasks.

As a simple example, after a positive bond has been established with the therapy animal (a dog in this case), we would begin to learn how the dog communicates his or her emotion (through body and behavior) and then identify and compare how the child does the same, following which we teach the child to identify the same emotions in others, and what the appropriate responses would be for most emotions (like if someone is yelling, it is likely they are feeling angry / if someone is crying, it is ikely they are feeling sad). Others in my repertoire of clients were teenagers and children who had low-self esteem issues or lacked assertiveness skills to be able to stand up for themselves. Through their relationship and interaction with the therapy animal (and the therapist ofcourse), their strengths were highlighted, and they were taught and helped to practice the skills necessary to empower them to stand up for themselves in an appropriate manner.

Adults I worked with came for issues like clinical depression (a mood disorder characterized by extreme and long-term feeling of sadness, with a lack of motivation or ability to perform any of their basic functions in life), trauma (any deeply disturbing physical or emotional experiences that caused stress and affects a person to the point that they cannot function normally) and anxiety (an extreme and unreasonable fear that prevents people from functioning normally), among others. In these cases, the work with the therapy animal would be more spontaneous (based on how the client and the animal responded to each other in the moment), and less structured, as in the case of working with children on the spectrum.

Though there are specific goals, how we arrive at those goals is not set in stone, but includes learning self-love, better and more effective ways to cope with their stressors, working through and learning from past painful experiences, and eventually building self-reliance. This means that the working bond I have with my co-therapist (the therapy animal) is important as it is one of the tools I employ and work with in sessions.

Other skills and requirements include a solid foundational and updated knowledge of theories, high emotional awareness and self-reflective abilities, knowing coping skills and the ability to teach the same to clients, an accepting, non-judgemental and empathic attitude towards the client, strong communication skills (both verbal and non-verbal; includes listening and observing, and not only talking), creative thinking (especially when it comes to finding multiple ways to achieve one given goal), and perhaps most importantly a a genuine and authentic interest and inclination towards helping people.

How did you get your first break?

Finding the appropriate and correct programme for me was my first break. After I completed my training, and returned to India in 2017, the first break I got here was working as an AAT therapist with a private therapy center in the city, I was introduced to the Founder through a junior friend of mine from college, who also worked there.

Tell us about a few challenges you faced in your career

The challenges when I started out on this journey were the following

a) Lack of standardized hands-on training programmes, with expert professionals

b) If there, then lack of access to the same (finances, distance, international laws etc.)

c) A lack of awareness of the existence of the field itself

d) Skepticism or personal reasons to fear or dislike animals (childhood experiences/ cultural expectations etc.)

e) Stigma of seeking any form of Mental Health help

f) Upholding International Standard Practices & Ethics in different cities/countries

With time, and consistent practice, I have seen AAT make a significant and positive impact on clients’ lives. My attempt at handling these challenges was always based around an open-minded and accepting attitude, every time I was faced with them, as I realised the biggest block to availing this form of help, was fear and lack of awareness; that is how I began i.e. by spreading awareness one person at a time, starting with clients, but also inclusive of client’s family members, the curious layman, and ofcourse the pre-adult youth.  I took every opportunity I could find ; personal conversation with friends or family, visits to colleges and schools, time on public forums, and even social media ; to build and create awareness, with correct information and an openess and willingness to interact with different kinds of people. 

With each personal experience, clients’ desire to learn more and actively engage with the therapy process naturally increased, and within months, many clients began seeing results. This in turn led them to refer my services to others they knew, or talk about the same at forums and opportunities they came in contact with, and slowly the practice began growing, along with the acceptance of AAT as a viable modality of treatment.

The way I handle larger challenges is to also reach out to other professionals in the field and get their insight and input. The world of AAT in India is currently small, and dare I say disconnected? but collaboration, cooperation, and a collective ethical sense of responsibility can make all the difference to tackling this issue.

What do you do currently? Tell us about your work

I recently resigned from my job as a consultant therapist at a therapy center in Chennai, where I worked with neurotypical as well as atypical children (autism spectrum, global developmental delays) and adults. The problems addressed across all these different clients were varied; socialization skills, emotional awareness and expression of the same, help managing depression and anxiety, and sometimes even just helping people achieve the goals they set for themselves.

In a more general sense, I perceive the job of a mental health therapist to be that of offering a safe, and non-judgmental space to anyone, so that they may process their experiences and emotions, and learn and grow from the same.

Currently, I practice privately, from home, (now over video sessions, due to COVID19) with my clients.

The skills required to be a counsellor or therapist include a strong grasp of foundational theories, listening and social communication skills, a strong sense of empathy (which means the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes and understand how they feel, without losing your objective perspective; this is different from sympathy which means to feel bad or pity for someone), the ability to set clear and appropriate boundaries, a good sense of ethics pertinent to practice in the field, and most importantly some level of self-awareness and objectivity.

A typical day (when I was still seeing clients in person) would start by 11 and go anywhere from 5 to 7pm. I would be in my therapy room, with my co-therapist for the day (either my cat Arya, or my dog Lily) and clients would come visit us, as per their appointments. Sessions last 45-60 mins and depending on the client and their need, we would integrate work (like feeding, grooming, teaching tricks etc.) with the therapy animals into the session, keeping in mind their goals and encouraging them to build the skills they need to achieve the same. Sometimes, my therapy animals would not be a part of session; this was either because the client has expressed preferring to work without the animal, or my animal themselves have chosen to not participate. My co-therapists always have a choice, which ensures that all interactions are mutually enjoyed by all parties, and nothing is forced.

What I love most about this job is that I get to spend my days with who I love the most i.e. my animals, and together we help change people’s lives. The feeling that we made a positive impact on somebody and helped them through a difficult time or issue is very personally satisfying, and is what keeps me bound to this field.

How does your work benefit society?

Mental health, despite increased efforts these days, does not get the recognition it should. It is almost as important as physical health, if not equally, and is common to every single human being on this planet. Everybody feels sad, and happy, and angry, and confused, at different points in their lives, and sometimes all these feelings can get overwhelming.

When you fall and get hurt bad, you go to the doctor because he is an expert that has studied the human body and understands how it functions. Similarly, a therapist or counselor is an expert on the human mind, and understands that sometimes life’s experiences can be overwhelming, and helps you navigate and manage your problem to the best of your ability.

Good mental health enhances a person’s life – their self-esteem, their personal relationships, their professional relationships and achievements etc, and if enough people in society take the effort to take care of their (and others’) mental health, the world might possibly be a kinder and happier place.

Tell us about your most memorable work

Lily and I, over the course of 8 months, helped a secondary school student overcome his bullies in school. When he first began working with us, he was very closed off and reserved, and only showed any interest in playing with toys or talking about video games. As our sessions progressed, Lily insisted on interacting with him, whether he initiated it or not, and showered him with special attention and love, every single time she saw him. This led my client to begin exploring a lot of questions about himself; like why did Lily like him? What was there to like about him? Did he deserve the love she showed him? Through his established relationship with Lily (and myself) he started seeing himself in a different perspective, and soon, after having taught Lily multiple tricks (it was his idea) he was confident, able to stand up for himself in school, and felt good about himself and his achievements. I still remember how he proudly led Lily to introduce her to his mother, on the day of our last session together.

Your advice to students?

My advice is simple but not easy – if you know what you want to do, and you know what makes you happy, do your damnest best to make sure you spent as much of your time in life doing exactly that. A significant amount of our life is spent working a job, so it is more than just work…it is at least 1/3rd of your life, and it only follows that you might as well be happy and feel a sense of purpose and meaning, through the process.

If you don’t know what you want to do, don’t fret. Explore all your options, and see where your interests take you. You’d be surprised at what you may find. The generations before you had clear cut jobs and roles they were expected to fulfill, but I have seen many people in the past decade find new avenues and create whole new jobs and fields for themselves so like I said – don’t fret. The sky really is the limit!

Your future plans?

I definitely have some ideas and plans for the future. While I will continue to see clients, I want to actively increase awareness about Animal Assisted Therapy and it’s validity as a form of therapy. I also plan on facilitating training and teaching for aspiring AAT professionals, and ultimately I would love to someday establish a ranch-like resident mental health programme on a beautiful and vast piece of land ; a safe space with the animals, for anyone looking for acceptance and a little help with their lives.