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Mrs. North Dakota International promotes mental health benefits of the human-animal bond

Iverson spent 10 months in Afghanistan in 2017. She witnessed firsthand the effect that Rogue – an Afghan mutt found by the National Guard’s behavioral unit – had on military personnel.

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Mandy Iverson, Mrs. North Dakota International 2023, hangs out with Miley, a 5-year-old miniature schnauzer, during a break in training recently in Grand Forks. Mandy is in the process (with Miley) of becoming a certified pet therapy handler through the Pet Partners of the Red River Valley organization.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS – A puppy that Mandy Iverson’s colleagues rescued during a National Guard deployment in Afghanistan six years ago became the catalyst for the platform she has adopted as Mrs. North Dakota International 2023.

Iverson’s platform, “Paws for Mental Health,” is aimed at promoting the benefits of the human-animal bond on mental health.

Iverson, recently crowned Mrs. North Dakota International 2023, spent 10 months in Afghanistan with the North Dakota Army National Guard in 2017. She witnessed firsthand the “powerful” effect that Rogue – an Afghan mutt found by the Guard’s behavioral unit – had on her fellow military personnel.

“She had no formal training. She was just what we call a morale dog,” Iverson remembered. “(Rogue) came to my unit’s building one day for a site visit to, basically, increase morale.

“As soon as she entered the building, there was a palpable shift in the mood, the demeanor of that building. You could see it and I personally felt it. I witnessed it with my own eyes. These senior soldiers, these junior soldiers, men, women alike – it did not matter what your background was – you were sitting on the floor, playing with this dog. And it was absolutely powerful.


“When she left I went, 'oh my gosh, this is one of the hardest groups of people to reach, and this was so easy, why aren’t we doing more of this?' And ‘Paws for Mental Health’ basically started at that very moment, and here we are today.”

The military is known for the stereotype that its members “don’t need help (with mental health issues), and there’s that very stigmatized view of mental health,” said Iverson, a 20-year veteran of the Guard.

A strong mental health advocate, Iverson said, “I am a vet. An animal changed my life.”

In the North Dakota Army National Guard, Iverson, 43, holds the rank of major and serves as commander of the Camp Grafton Training Center in Devils Lake.

“There is a strong emphasis on de-stigmatizing mental health and mental health concerns in our unit,” she said. “I interact with a lot of different entities within the National Guard, and I am very happy to say that the effects are spreading – the focus on mental health and the de-stigmatization is working.”

Conversations about mental health that need to happen are happening, she said.

“It’s been a very gratifying experience – and in essence, in a way, brought me to where I’m at today, as Mrs. North Dakota International 2023.”

Focused on prevention

Employed as community mental health coordinator for the city of Grand Forks and Mental Health Matters, Iverson said, “As a nurse, I live and breathe in the prevention world. I would like, very much, for us to have tools in our toolkit, as citizens in communities … to be mentally well.


“Mental health is a very pervasive issue in every single community (worldwide), especially in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “It’s important, it’s vital, and it affects every single one of us.”

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Mandy Iverson, of Grand Forks, was recently crowned Mrs. North Dakota International 2023

In her year-long role as Mrs. North Dakota International, Iverson is also keen to raise awareness of and support for Pet Partners of the Red River Valley, based in Fargo, and Service Dogs for America.

She is devoted to increasing “the frequency and application of animal-assisted intervention in our mental health programming,” she said. To that end, she plans to educate others through public speaking, to serve through volunteer work and advocacy, and to combat the stigma often associated with mental health through her outreach and volunteer efforts, she said.

Iverson, who is married to Doug Iverson, will hold the title of Mrs. North Dakota International 2023 until Dec. 31. She plans to compete for the title of Mrs. International 2023 in July at Kingsport, Tennessee.

Interest in education, health care

Iverson, who was born and raised in Bemidji, Minnesota, moved to Grand Forks in 1997 to attend UND, where she earned an undergraduate degree in biology, with a pre-health emphasis, she said. “I was going to be a doctor.”

However, she veered toward education and worked as a paraprofessional at Lake Agassiz Elementary School and for LaGrave on First, Grand Forks’ first permanent housing complex for the chronically homeless.

Later she returned to UND to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Iverson has been drawn to pageants since childhood, when she became interested and competed in pageants and enjoyed watching these competitions on TV, she said.


She learned about the Mrs. International Pageant from a friend who competed in it, she said. Her friend is “a very inspiring person,” whose example prompted her to want to participate.

Iverson was impressed by the International pageant’s mission, which is “to promote today’s married women, their accomplishments, and commitment to family and marriage,” according to its website.

The pageant celebrates women who “are pivotal members of their family and their community and (are) role models,” Iverson said. It reflects “the values with which I align myself: integrity, loyalty, dedication, and servitude to something greater than yourself.”

‘Making a difference’

The pageant is “about making a difference in our communities,” she emphasized.

Through her pageant experience, Iverson has developed lasting friendships, she said. “It’s a competition, but International is a sisterhood. We lift each other up; we straighten each other’s crown.”

Iverson has also become more comfortable and adept in public speaking, she said. And she’s excited to have the opportunity to share her “passions” about animal-assisted therapy on the international stage.

The Mrs. North Dakota International competition does not hold a typical formal pageant event, Iverson explained. Women who seek the title submit an application and are interviewed.

Pageant winners are chosen in an “at large” format, a representative of the system said in an email. Iverson was selected by members of the International Pageants’ judging committee, based in Roanoke, Virginia, through a comprehensive application and review process.


Mrs. International Pageant operates Miss International, Miss Teen International and Miss Pre-Teen International pageants. It is the only platform-based pageant system dedicated to highlighting women’s accomplishments through community service.

Mrs. International showcases married women, ages 21 to 56, and features competitions in interview, evening gown, and fitness wear categories.

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Mandy Iverson of Grand Forks, who is reigning as Mrs. North Dakota International 2023 through Dec. 31, has developed a platform, "Paws for Mental Health," to highlight the mental health benefits of the human-animal bond.

Pet therapy certification

Iverson is training her sister’s dog, Miley, to earn certification as a pet therapy handler through Pet Partners of the Red River Valley, a sister organization to the Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals, she said.

When she and the 5-year-old miniature schnauzer have completed training, Iverson hopes to take Miley to provide pet therapy in schools, nursing homes, veterans homes and other settings.

She is already applying some of her skills in her volunteer work with the Circle of Friends Animal Shelter, she said. “I like to work with some (animals) that are harder to adopt.”

In North Dakota, the ratio of mental health professionals to the population is low, compared to other states, but the need for services is significant, Iverson said.

Human interaction with therapy animals may provide a pathway to improved health for individuals and groups, according to the journal Psychology Today.


Interacting with animals can help with depression, anxiety, ADHD, stress, addiction and other mental health conditions, as well as emotional and behavioral problems in children, according to the journal.

“I’m not saying this (pet therapy) is a cure for mental illness,” Iverson said, “but it’s something so easy you can do.”

Simply reading to children in your family with a dog present or just petting an animal can be beneficial to one’s mental health, she said.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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