Most pet owners agree that animal companions offer much-needed emotional comfort when life gets difficult. Now, a new study suggests they could do even more for people suffering from serious mental illnesses.
Published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, the study included 54 subjects who had all been diagnosed with long-term mental health problems, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Researchers conducted extensive interviews with each participant in an attempt to assess the relationship, meaning, utility and overall value of pets in the context of managing mental illness. After transcribing each subject’s responses, the researchers analyzed the results using a framework analysis. In the end, they found compelling evidence that pets offered substantial support in the following ways:
- Providing intimate and secure relationships unavailable elsewhere
- Helping to manage feelings by offering distractions from upsetting experiences and everyday symptoms
- Providing a form of activity and encouragement
The researchers also found that pets were especially beneficial for subjects with limited or difficult support networks.
More than Just Pets
Whether they were cats, dogs or birds, the study’s respondents regarded their pets as central to their well-being. In fact, 60 percent equated them to close family and social workers in terms of emotional value.
In addition to living with difficult symptoms, many people with mental illness experience a loss of social connectivity and status. This can exacerbate problems by promoting feelings of isolation and loneliness. For these people, pets can provide companionship, while also helping to provide daily living activities and a more structured routine.
Unfortunately, despite their potential benefits, pets are rarely incorporated into care plans for people with mental illnesses. According to the study’s authors, their research strongly suggests that this should change, with pets being considered a primary and not marginal support feature in the management of long-term mental illness.