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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

The healing effects of a White 'Seal'

CAMH has found an unlikely secret weapon in treating depression and dementia, and it comes in the form of a fluffy, white seal named Paro.

The robotic seal bleats, stretches and cranes its neck in response to a client’s touch, and is proving as effective as pet therapy in treating clients in the geriatric mental health program.

“We’re already finding that, for some difficult cases of depression, this could be a catalyst that helps people move on and get back to their healthy state,” says Dr. Simon Davies, a staff psychiatrist and clinical scientist with the program. “It’s very therapeutic – another approach to use alongside all the regular treatments proving effective in depression treatment.”

Paro is an advanced interactive robot that looks like a Canadian Harp seal. It has four senses – sight, sound, balance and touch – and interacts with people through baby seal-like body movements and noises. If stroked on the back of the head, for example, it may lift its head and bleat in response. Tickle its whiskers and it purrs. Weighing 2.7 kg, Paro can be comfortably held or cradled in a client’s lap.

But this is no stuffed toy or plaything. Developed in Japan at Intelligent Systems Research, Paro has gone through rigorous testing in seven countries with 1,800 respondents, and has demonstrated effectiveness in easing depression, reducing wandering and agitation in dementia patients, and even preventing loneliness.

Convinced that Paro would find a good home at CAMH, Dr. Davies’ team applied for – and received – funding from CAMH Foundation’s Gifts of Light Client Comfort Fund. The Fund is open to all frontline staff responsible for client care, with grants of up to $5,000 available to support projects not funded from the hospital’s operating or capital budgets. Twice a year, the Comfort Fund awards up to $50,000 in grants.

In the geriatric program, Paro is proving to have the benefits of pet therapy and a few advantages, too.

“The evidence for PARO is accumulating. This is an extension of the pet therapy CAMH already provides, but it’s a resource that is available all the time,” says Dr. Davies. “Of course, our pet therapy dog can only work for a certain amount of the day, and dogs do have more of a mind of their own than Paro. Dogs aren’t always going to get along with everyone – and not everyone is happy and comfortable with dogs.”

Seeing Paro in action is the real test, and Dr. Davies could tell from the first client interaction that Paro really was something special. That client was Paul, whom Dr. Davies had been treating as an outpatient before his depression became so severe that he was admitted into CAMH’s geriatric unit. While clinical staff could see Paul’s treatments were working, Paul wasn’t yet able to cross the final hurdle to health.

Meeting Paro has helped.

“Basically I thought it was a big joke. I thought it was silly,” Paul says, pausing to tickle Paro’s chin to make him purr and bleat. “But this literally cheers me up for a couple hours. I was so surprised.”

The transformation is wonderful to watch. Within minutes of interacting with Paro, Paul’s mood changes and a wide smile stretches across his face. He becomes more comfortable – chatting, joking and even laughing out loud.

“When you have depression, you can’t concentrate and the days just drag,” he explains. “Paro gives me something to concentrate on. It’s easy. He brings me out of myself, even if it’s just for a little bit.”

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