Meredith Cooper’s life was turned upside down when she was 21 years old.
After a battle with anorexia and a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, she expected her life would be different forever.
But now more than two decades on, Ms Cooper, 49, is feeling the most liberated she has in a long time – and she credits it all to a special little companion.
"It’s been an overwhelming journey, but my dog Lucy has changed my whole life," she told SBS News.
"She helps me untangle all the confusing emotions and can bring me away from the dark times and the despair."
Meredith says Lucy has changed her life Source: Supplied
Ms Cooper said few of the many mental health services she has used over the last two decades have brought her closer to her clinical recovery goals as much as Lucy.
And she isn’t just a regular pet - like other service animals, Lucy has undertaken specialised training to detect signs of distress and perform tasks to help ease the burden of those symptoms.
“Before Lucy, I couldn't catch public transport. I was anxious and uncomfortable attending social functions. I'd often have panic attacks in places like shopping centres," Ms Cooper said.
"She gives me such a sense of purpose and we are just so connected to each other."
'An incredible difference'
Statistics show there was a dramatic increase in stress, anxiety, depression, and overall poor mental wellbeing during and after the onset of COVID-19 lockdowns last year.
Twenty-one per cent of Australians surveyed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported their mental health as being fair or poor in January 2021. One in five people also said their mental state was much worse than before lockdowns began in March 2020.
mindDog Australia - a not-for-profit that helped train Lucy to provide help for Meredith - said the pandemic has led to an increase in demand for assistance dogs.
Gayl O'Grady, a senior trainer and assessor at the organisation, said service dogs have been a great help easing the burden of the pandemic on isolated people.
Lucy was trained by mindDog Australia to provide psychiatric assistance to Meredith. Source: Supplied
"People have been living in a state of worry. Even the healthiest and most well-balanced person is concerned so it’s obviously been huge for people with mental health issues," she said.
"These dogs provide a high level of support to people who need it but may not have accessed it at the height of the tough restrictions. Their dogs are the owner’s best friends, so they don't feel alone or as scared."
With a significant decline in the delivery of face-to-face mental health services during lockdowns, Ms O’Grady believes assistance dogs literally saved lives.
"Having been isolated from health and psychiatric services, many were particularly vulnerable and distressed. But nobody can do what the dogs do for them," she said.
"Having one is 24/7, around the clock tailored care - it provides an intense feeling of support that other health providers just can’t."
Melanie Jones, a psychologist and the director of Melbourne animal companion organisation Lead The Way, said she hopes the positive outcomes reported during the pandemic will result in heightened awareness about the importance of assistance dogs.
"But with greater awareness comes service demand, which would require the sector to secure more funding support," Ms Jones said.
While service dogs can have transformative impacts on the lives of their owners, they can sometimes be hard to find and expensive to train.
mindDog Australia was the recipient of a funding boost last year, with the NSW government announcing a $500,000 expansion project in September.
Ms Cooper said she hoped the additional funding will mean that other people living with debilitating mental health conditions can also increase control over their lives.
She said having Lucy by her side during lockdown in Sydney was the “best medicine”.
Ms Jones added: "Assistance dogs are hugely beneficial to those needing to feel connected and loved, and during the COVID-19 lockdowns, they made an incredible difference."
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at . supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.