People who have pets in their lives very often treat them almost as fully human members of the family. Many studies have shown that pets are good for keeping blood pressure lower, easing stress and even helping children with autism or cognitive delays become more independent. This is on top of the ability of some pets to be service animals and therapy animals for the disabled. Without these furry friends, many people would simply be lost. A new study from the United Kingdom adds more credence to the value of pets for a specific group—those suffering from major mental illness.
Researchers at the University of Manchester recently completed a research study with over 50 adult subjects, all of whom suffered from serious, long-term mental health conditions and also had pets. The study sought to investigate the role pets played in the social network of their human companions. The participants in the study all had diagnoses of either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It’s common that people with these illnesses usually spend a lot of time at home and don’t have a large social circle or much contact with others. Twenty five of the study subjects considered their pets to be part of their social circle.
When asked detailed questions about the role their pets played in their lives and in the management of their illness, the answers were surprising. Each participant was shown a diagram, with a square at the center that represented themselves. Around the square were a series of circles, three in total, and researchers asked the volunteers to allocate a spot in the circles for the people, places and things that were sources of comfort and support, putting the most important in the circle closest to the center and working outwards. Sixty percent placed their pet in the first circle, with cats, dogs and a few birds outranking family and friends. Another 20% put their animals in the second circle.
When asked specifically why the pets were so highly regarded, the answers fell along the lines of providing a connection to the rest of the world and alleviating some symptoms of their illness. One participant stated, “But if I’m here and I’m having…having problems with voices and that, erm, it does help me in the sense, you know, I’m not thinking about the voices, I’m just thinking of when I hear the birds singing.” Another talked about how a pet kept them involved with others, “You know, so in terms of mental health, when you just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, they force me, the cats force me to sort of still be involved with the world.”
Helen Brooks from the University of Manchester and the study lead author explained, "The people we spoke to through the course of this study felt their pet played a range of positive roles, such as helping them to manage stigma associated with their mental health by providing acceptance without judgment. Pets were also considered particularly useful during times of crisis. Pets provided a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which [the patients] were often not receiving from other family or social relationships." The researchers felt the study highlighted a gap in care for those with serious mental illness. While patients were adamant about how important their pets were, the inclusion of the animals in their health care plans and in discussions with their doctors was nearly nonexistent. Including pets as part of therapy could be a way to help those who suffer from these very isolating conditions. Take a look at the video below to learn more.