Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269
October 20, 2010
MSU Billings student keeps anti-anxiety medicine close at hand - literally
By Dan Carter
MSU Billings News Service
After a busy morning of class at Montana State University Billings, Brooke likes nothing better than to spend a few moments in the shade of the pine trees around the university’s inviting 85-acre main campus.
Simply content with a light fall breeze wafting through her red-blonde hair, she’s more than happy to catch a small nap or watch the passing foot traffic of students. Some pay her no mind. Others give a quick second glance, seemingly almost surprised at her presence.
But, aside from a few minutes of freedom, Brooke is all business. And being out and about isn’t all fun and games; it’s a big part of her job.
Brooke is a service dog. She’s also a lifeline.
The year-old golden retriever belongs to Seth Marshall, a Laurel freshman who wouldn’t even think of stepping foot in a college classroom if not for Brooke. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder a bit more than a year ago, Marshall needs to have the dog with him to keep his psychological health in balance.
“She’s my fast-acting, long-lasting anti-anxiety medication,” Marshall says with a smile.
Tall, engaging and quick with a smile, the 19-year-old Marshall doesn’t hesitate to talk with anybody about the role Brooke plays in his life. She is more than a constant companion. She’s healthcare on four legs, keeping Marshall safe from impulsive or potentially self-destructive behavior.
The potential is very real.
When he was in high school, Marshall said he tried to commit suicide and had other destructive behavior. Devastated by relationships and struggling to even maintain a semblance of a relationship with people, he was homebound for three months.
“I basically didn’t function in society,” he said.
He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which involves periods of excitability (mania) alternating with periods of depression. The "mood swings" between mania and depression can be very abrupt. For Marshall, that can translate into irritation regarding other people.
“Sometimes I can’t stand being around people,” he said.
Accepting what he must, adjusting as he could, Marshall eventually found that working with Brooke was the perfect anti-anxiety treatment. Trained and certified as a service dog through the Prison Paws program at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, Brooke can ease Marshall’s nervousness and allows him to be on an even keel.
“I focus on what she’s doing not on what other people are doing around me,” he said. “She keeps me under control. When I get nervous I just pet her and she just absorbs the bad feelings.”
He and Brooke made it through the last year of high school in Laurel and he decided to make the next step to MSU Billings. Marshall, who commutes to college every day from home, said MSU Billings faculty, staff and students are understanding and courteous for the most part. He said high school kids tended to ignore the cardinal rule of service dogs: don’t pet them.
“When they ask if they can pet the dog and I tell them ‘no,’ it means no,” he said. “The dog needs to be working for me. It’s not a joke. You wouldn’t want me to ask to pet your teacher, would you?”
Brooke is one of three service dogs at MSU Billings this semester, said Trudy Carey, director of Disability Support Services at the university. Currently, the DSS staff work on accommodations for 204 students with varying disabilities at both the main campus and the College of Technology campus on Billings’ West End. That’s an increase from the 165 students served at this time in 2009.
Under revisions to the Americans with Disabilities Act, new service dog regulations have been put in place. The regulations require that service dogs be individually trained to do work for a person with a disability. The work has to be directly related to that disability and service dogs are now allowed to perform tasks for a person with a psychiatric or mental disability as well as a physical disability. As examples, the federal government says service dogs help prevent or interrupt impulsive or self-destructive behavior.
MSU Billings students and faculty have been very understanding, Marshall said. He’s made friends and is working out with the track team to get back into the championship sprinting form he had when he was a junior in high school.
Even though it is hard, he is also expanding his circle of friends.
Fellow freshman Megan Salo, a Billings resident, has taken to hanging out with Marshall between classes and has learned a lot just by being around him and Brooke.
“He and I sat in the same row in a class and I just got to know him,” Salo said. “As a new student, it’s been a learning experience.”
Having Brooke around leads to some interesting conversations, he said, and some students ask him about his disability. Because many people assume that service dogs only work for those with sight impairments, they act surprised when they find out he doesn’t have a sight problem. But he does use it for some education.
Simply stating that “I’m an open book,” Marshall is not afraid to talk with others about the role Brooke plays in his life and how he handles his disorder. He said he hopes to enlighten others around campus about the need to respect the dog and its owner and help others understand that disabilities aren’t always outwardly obvious.
“Sometimes there’s a stigma about it and people can be intolerant of people who are different,” he said. “One thing I hope is that people can have some respect for the person who has authority over the dog. A little respect goes a long ways.”
PHOTO ABOVE: Seth Marshall, right, a freshman at MSU Billings, is able to attend college thanks to the help of his service dog, Brooke. The year-old golden retriever works for Marshall to keep his anxiety levels in check for his bipolar disorder. Because the engaging Marshall is easy to talk to, he has made new friends at MSU Billings, including fellow freshman Megan Salo, left.