Britney Digilio, Founder of The Lola Project
An Ulster County woman spreads the word about mental illness with the help of her four-legged friend
Britney Digilio is no stranger to mental illness. When she was 12, the New Paltz resident and mother of one was diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. In addition, when she was growing up, she witnessed a family member’s post-military battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Then about five years ago, while Digilio was studying psychology and mental health counseling at Marist College, her pet pug passed away and sparked an idea: What if she could bring attention to mental health issues with a psychiatric service dog?
It took Digilio about two years to locate Lola, an eight-week-old golden retriever. “She was a white creampuff of a puppy,” Digilio says. So was born The Lola Project, which seeks to raise awareness, specifically among veterans and members of the military, about mental illness and the benefits psychiatric service dogs can serve in combating and preventing it. To spread her message, and to encourage those suffering from mental illness to seek treatment (she points out on her website that nearly one in four Americans are affected by mental illness, but it too often goes unnoticed or untreated), Digilio travels around the Hudson Valley with Lola, lecturing and hosting fundraisers and doing her part to flush away the stigma
Not only is Lola the organization’s namesake, she is also Digilio’s personal service dog: She can sense Digilio’s approaching bipolar episodes, retrieve medicine, and find help from others. “If I get lightheaded or overwhelmed in a public situation, she can lead me out of a building and/or find whoever I may be with,” says Digilio. “Her command is: ‘Find Daddy,’ and she’ll lead me to my husband.”
Digilio says psychiatric service dogs like Lola are different from other service animals, like therapy dogs. Lola does not assist anyone other than Digilio, but she is able to meet people at events the organization hosts.
“Therapy dogs are the dogs that visit hospitals, nursing homes, etcetera, whereas a service dog is specifically, individually task-trained to mitigate disabilities for their handler,” she says. “So just like a seeing-eye dog would be for somebody with a visual impairment, psychiatric service dogs are for people with psychiatric disabilities.”
Digilio says the best part about running The Lola Project is knowing she’s made an impact. A veteran who had done three tours overseas approached her at an event and told her he’d tried to commit suicide several times. She helped him find his own service dog, and he has not had suicidal tendencies since. “He wrote me a very nice email, saying, ‘Thank you. If it wasn’t for you, I’m not sure I’d still be here. I never would have known about these types of dogs.’ I got a little teary,” Digilio says.
Digilio says to fight the stigma associated with mental illness — the biggest challenge she’s faced with The Lola Project — people need to be honest with themselves and with others, and not be afraid to seek help. “I think, ultimately, the more people who feel it’s OK to talk about it,” she says, “the better it’s going to be.”
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