Swimming With Dolphins Can Ease Clinical Depression

LONDON, UK, November 25, 2005 (ENS) - Swimming with dolphins can help alleviate symptoms of mild to moderate depression after two weeks of treatment instead of four weeks required for psychotherapy or drugs to be effective, say researchers in this week's "British Medical Journal" (BMJ). Their work supports the idea that connecting with nature can improve human health and wellbeing, known as ecotherapy - restoring health through contact with nature.

The research was conducted by Christian Antonioli, PhD candidate in psychiatry and Michael Reveley, professor of psychiatry, of the Department of Health Sciences, Division of Clinical Psychiatry, University of Leicester Medical School, Leicester General Hospital, in Leicester, England.

"We studied outpatients, recruited through announcements on the internet, radio, newspapers, and hospitals in the United States and Honduras between November 2002 and December 2003, who had a diagnosis of a mild or moderate depressive disorder," the researchers said.


A patient diagnosed with depression swims with a dolphin and trainer during the Honduran study. (Photo courtesy British Medical Journal)
The study was carried out in Honduras and involved 30 patients diagnosed with mild or moderate depression. At the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences, half were assigned to the experimental group and allowed to swim with the dolphins, and half were assigned to the control group that did not swim with the marine mammals.

Over a two week period, participants in the experimental group swam and snorkeled in the water with dolphins for one hour a day. Participants in the control group were assigned to the same water activities, but in the absence of dolphins, to control for the influence of water and the natural setting.

All participants discontinued antidepressant drugs or psychotherapy at least four weeks before entering the study, and were not allowed to take drugs during the study. Depression scores were measured before the study and at the end of treatment.

Although five participants dropped out of the study, the average severity of the depressive symptoms was found to be more reduced in the experimental group than in the control group.

Three months after the study, participants in both groups also reported lasting improvement and did not require treatment. This suggests that in patients with mild or moderate depression, using drugs or conventional psychotherapy may not be necessary when biophilic treatment with animals is used, Antonioli and Reveley conclude.

The authors concluded that animal facilitated therapy with dolphins is more effective than water therapy in treating people with mild to moderate depression.

The echolocation system, the aesthetic value, and the emotions raised by the interaction with dolphins may explain the mammals' healing properties, Antonioli and Reveley suggest.

To avoid disappointment for the participants in the control group, which might have affected the results of the study, they also had a day session with the dolphins at the end of the treatment and after the final evaluation, the researchers said.

Their findings support the theory of biophilia, which shows how human health and wellbeing are dependent on human relationships with the natural environment.

The term biophilia was first used by psychologist Erich Fromm to underline "the need for cultivating the capacity for love as a basis for our mental health and emotional wellbeing."

The authors conclude that the biophilic method of intervention represents a new emphasis in psychiatry and has the potential to bring alternative clinical strategies to the treatment of emotional disorders.

"Our psychophysical health is strictly dependent on the environment," wrote Antonioli and Reveley, "hence the importance to protect and conserve it."


Guests swim with a dolphin in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (Photo courtesy Boutique Villas)
But critics of programs that allow people to swim with dolphins say that the practice has little to do with love. They maintain that the animals often are mistreated during capture, suffer miserable lives in confinement and die early.

Those who run dolphin facilities say that their animals are ambassadors for their species and that the mammals help to educate the public about dolphins and the need to protect them in the wild.

Critics disagree, charging that captivity compromises dolphins' natural behaviors, denies their most basic needs, and subjects wild dolphins to brutal capture methods.

Recently, there has been an explosive growth in dolphin swim programs worldwide, a boom inspired by the monetary success of the 18 dolphin swim facilities in the United States.

Says Naomi Rose of the Humane Society of the United States, "It's out of control - particularly in the Caribbean."


Girl plays with a dolphin at Chankanaab Marine Park in Cozumel, Mexico (Photo courtesy Mexonline)
While no one really knows how many facilities are already in operation or are in the works outside the United States, Rose knows of planned or existing facilities in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, the Cayman Islands, St. Kitts-Nevis, and the Netherlands Antilles.

According to Susan Sherwin of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, resort owners are buying dolphins, placing them in everything from sea pens to converted swimming pools, and inviting dolphin lovers to come swim with them.

"There is no one policing this on an international level. There's not even anyone policing this on a country-by-country level," says Sherwin. And no one knows how many dolphins are being captured from the wild to fill the new facilities.

Still, connecting with nature can improve human health and wellbeing, say researchers in this week’s BMJ. The theory is known as ecotherapy - restoring health through contact with nature.

Ambra Burls, senior lecturer in Mental Health, and Woody Caan, professor of public health, at the Institute of Health and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, Essex say the connection between health and nature could be enhanced.

They suggest that partnerships between healthcare providers and nature organizations to share and exchange expertise could create new policies that recognize the interdependence between healthy people and healthy ecosystems.

They point to squirrels, owls, and raccoons that have been used successfully in therapies for children with emotional and behavioral problems.

In a third BMJ article this week, Scottish psychologist June McNicholas says owning a pet is linked to health and wellbeing, particularly for older people and patients recovering from major illness.

Research has suggested that pet ownership is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, lower use of family doctor services, and a reduced risk of asthma and allergies in young children.