The story of a donkey who transformed a woman’s life has been shared to mark World Mental Health Day.

To coincide with today’s (10 October) initiative, the Donkey Sanctuary has highlighted how Gillian Smith gained confidence thanks to “life skills” sessions offered at the charity’s Manchester centre.

Gillian found everyday life challenging and stressful, the sanctuary said, and was introduced to the programme by a support worker from Manchester charity Breakthrough UK, which supports disabled people towards independence and work.

“Gillian’s support worker identified that the life skills programme could be just what she needed to help increase her confidence, improve her key life skills and help her become more independent,” said a sanctuary spokesman.

“Gillian’s first challenge was to overcome her nervousness of using public transport to get to the centre in Abbey Hey, but with the support from Breakthrough UK and the incentive to see the donkeys, she made it safely to the sanctuary.”

The spokesman explained that donkeys can pick up on humans’ non-verbal communication and will respond accordingly.

“Donkey Sanctuary staff are trained to pick up on the smallest ear or head movement that can give an indication of how the donkey is feeling and can be used to help the individual see how they are impacting the donkey,” the spokesman said. “So this is a type of ‘safe’ feedback system for them.

“Over the eight-week programme, Gillian has been able to understand how her own internal emotional feelings were mirrored by the donkeys. This allowed her confidence to grow and she was able to face the new challenges presented to her.”

As Gillian spent time with a number of donkeys, she became more confident with them, especially one called Hector.

“He’s funny, at one point it was as though he moved the other donkeys out of the way to be near me. It was like he wanted to be with me, which was nice,” she said.

Caron Whaley, director of donkey-assisted therapy at the sanctuary said: “Donkeys have a unique presence. We use their abilities as sentient creatures and encourage them to be an equal partner in the session. During sessions, the donkeys are allowed the freedom to work with people on the same level to develop an empathetic relationship, which is mutually beneficial for the individual and donkey.”

Gillian now enjoys more confidence and has become more independent.

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“I’m always thinking too much and the donkeys helped me to keep calm,” she said.

“When you really want to do something, you have to push yourself, even when it’s difficult. I now feel happy, and the experience has given me the confidence to want to go out and do more things.”

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