MIAMI (CBSMiami)  — Saturday, October 10 is World Mental Health Day, which this year has a new sense of urgency for many.  COVID-19 has taken a mental and emotional toll on healthcare workers across the U.S but there is a program boosting the spirits of doctors and nurses on the frontlines.

At UC Irvine Medical Center in Southern California, therapy dogs Dexter and Monet have an important mission, to bring smiles and comfort to healthcare workers. The dogs are part of the hospital’s volunteer pet therapy program, visiting employees once a month.

Brad Giafaglione oversees the program and says it’s more crucial than ever.

“We really needed a way to decompress and destress our staff. We thought to ourselves, if it works well for the patients, why wouldn’t it work well for our staff,” he says.

Pet therapy dogs used to help healthcare workers destress (CBS4)

Healthcare workers are vulnerable to burnout from their high stress jobs.

Recent international studies show during the pandemic, some workers are reporting high rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and PTSD. A recent global survey from KPMG found 59% of healthcare workers said their mental health had worsened due to the pandemic, that’s compared to 51% in industries outside of healthcare.

Pet therapy dogs used to help healthcare workers destress (CBS4)

“This is a new pandemic and new front that we’re all facing,” says ICU nurse Brian Cruz, who cares for critically ill COVID patients. He says the pressure of the crisis has been tremendous. But thanks to the cuddly canines in the pet therapy program, that stress slips away for a little.

“Seeing him happy, the energy transfers over to me, and I feel calm,” Cruz says.

Cruz says he has felt periods of depression and sadness, but the dogs help him through them.

Pet therapy dogs used to help healthcare workers destress (CBS4)

For Cruz, the furry faces and belly rubs are the perfect prescription.

“This is natural happiness and joy from a creature to a creature, and that will help me give that joy and happiness to my patients when I return to work,” he says.

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