|The role of pets in helping people with mental health problems may be much more significant than we thought.|
Pets are a key source of support for people with long-term mental health problems, and should be considered in management of chronic mental health disorders, according to a UK study(Brooks et al., 2016).
The authors set out to explore the role of pets in the support and management activities in personal networks of people with long-term mental health problems. They interviewed 54 people in England and asked them a series of questions about their lifestyle and relationships with human and non-human companions.
Think about the relationships in your life plotted in a series of concentric circles. Those plotted in the centre are the relationships that are the closest or highest value. Participants in the study were also asked to do this.
Of the participants who identified a pet or pets within their personal community associated with the management of mental health and daily life, the majority (60 per cent) placed their pet in the central, most important circle. A further 20 per cent placed their pet in the second circle. The types of pets people talked about were mostly dogs and cats, but also birds, hamsters (this is a UK study – we don’t have hamsters in Australia), guinea pigs, a mixture of species or unspecified.
According to the study’s authors, “Pets were implicated in the relational work through the provision of secure and intimate relationships not available elsewhere”.
Pets played a key role in people’s social networks, functioning as a distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences, encouraging routine and activity, providing physical contact and comfort, and providing a relationship without judgement. Pets also enhanced “ontological security”. This term refers to “a sense of order and continuity derived from a person’s capacity to give meaning to their lives and to maintain a positive view of the self, world and future.” For this to occur, one really needs stable emotions, and to avoid chaos and anxiety. Mental health problems threaten ontological security because of their association with breakdown of important relationships, difficulties in maintaining a routine and daily activities, and feelings of being judged, stigmatised, excluded or isolated.
Participants generally felt that to have a beneficial relationship with friends and family they needed to achieve a shared understanding of their mental health condition, which was difficult without friends and family directly experiencing the condition themselves, and because of value judgements or thwarted expectations. On the other hand, pets were seen to be either intuitively understanding their owner’s condition or being able to have a satisfying relationship without the requisite mutual understanding.
As the authors of the study stated, mental health conditions are associated with more challenging interpersonal relationships and typically more stigma than chronic physical conditions.
Pets were particularly valued where relationships with friends and family were difficult or limited. When people felt the need to withdraw and avoid others when they were unwell, pets provided access to the social world and motivation to get out of bed - “having to care for their animals no matter how they felt.” Feeding, grooming and exercising pets provided a structured routine for many pet owners, generating a sense of order and ontological security.
It wasn’t all roses. For a small number of study participants, there were negative aspects of relationships with pets which included anxiety about pets, the burden of caring for pets, distress when companion animals died or feeling one cannot travel. Perhaps these negative aspects could be specifically targeted in collaborative health plans, for example ensuring access to pet boarding, veterinary care and counselling associated with pet loss. It would also be helpful in ensuring that the welfare needs of animals in this circumstances continue to be met.
The authors concluded that companion animals are a “hidden resource for mental health management” because the value and utility of pets “remains invisible within mental health service provision and in the negotiation of individual care plans.”
Clearly, animal health professionals and those providing human health care services – particularly in mental health – need to spend more time considering the role of companion animals. This is currently done on an ad-hoc basis, but – given the importance of relationships with pets to many people in this study – assessing the role of pets in the lives of people with mental health conditions needs to be the rule, not the exception.
Thanks to SAT reader Merryn for pointing out this interesting study!