May 25, 2016

Attitudes in Reverse Event Combats Suicide, Celebrates Dogs’ Contributions to Mental Health

5-25-16 Miki AIR event

STAR OF THE SHOW: Miki, an 8-year-old Pomeranian, received the American Kennel Club Award of Canine Excellence in 2011 for the therapy work he does with Attitudes in Reverse. His award inspired the AIR Dog: Paws for Minds program, where dogs improve the mental well being of humans and the Miki and Friends Walk/Run for AIR. (Photo Courtesy of Tricia Baker)

Dogs, butterflies, and a large contingent of celebrants of all ages gathered at the East Picnic Area in Mercer County Park last Saturday to celebrate dogs’ contributions to people’s quality of life and to promote education about mental health and suicide. 

Featured events included a 5K walk/run, music (acoustic guitar and bagpipe), fun dog demos, and a butterfly release to honor loved ones who had passed away.

Organized by Attitudes in Reverse (AIR), this event “was a fun family event that gave us the opportunity to communicate our message about mental health to a much broader audience,” explained Tricia Baker, who established AIR with her husband Kurt and daughter Katelyn six years ago after losing their son (Katelyn’s brother) to suicide following a long battle against severe depression and anxiety. Throughout the year, AIR presents educational programs to students — as well as parents and teachers — in middle and high schools, colleges, and universities.

Speakers at Saturday’s event included Celina Levy, acting executive director of the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse; Mental Health Advocate Sean Campbell; and Nicole Lorenzetti from Heavenly Hounds, who led an agility demonstration.

Under a tent, local performer John Wilkey played acoustic guitar and sang as participants viewed posted photos of lost loved ones. A moving display of 233 pairs of shoes, “In Their Shoes,” represented the number of New Jersey youths who died through drug overdose, alcohol abuse, or suicide over a recent three-year period.

“It’s all about remembering them,” Ms. Baker said. “We learn from them. It’s so important that we talk about it.”

Ms. Baker emphasized the importance of helping people understand “what a young person might be struggling with, to encourage people to feel compassion, kindness, empathy for others who are suffering from depression or other mental illnesses. How do we educate the general population on this issue? We’re losing too many children. We have to decrease suicides.”

When people pet dogs, they experience biochemical reactions, releases of “feel good” brain chemicals called serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, and a reduction in a stress hormone called cortisol. The health benefits of having dogs are even greater if the dogs are trained to serve as emotional support animals, therapy dogs, or service dogs.

Saving lives by educating students about mental health and suicide prevention since 2011, AIR has presented to more than 25,000 students in middle and high schools and colleges in New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. AIR initiatives include AIR Dogs: Paws for Minds program, bringing dogs into schools to help students de-stress and engage in the conversation about mental health, and matching displaced dogs, trained as Emotional Support Dogs, with individuals who have mental health disorders or developmental disabilities.

On two successive Saturdays, June 18 and June 25, AIR will be conducting a special Youth Mental Health First Aid course designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help adolescents who are experiencing mental health or addictions challenges or are in crisis. See for further information.

This year’s event was sponsored by Bee Fit with Tracy, PerformCare New Jersey, Twin Rivers Animal Hospital, and Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, P.C.. The Knights of Columbus supplied the breakfast and barbecue lunch, and McCaffrey’s donated three large sheet cakes for the celebration.