Pets Help People Cope With Mental Illness

Having a mental illness can often feel isolating—not only must people endure their often painful symptoms and medication side effects, but they must also face a lack of understanding from others. It can be difficult to cope with the realization that most people simply cannot relate to their experiences. But, as shown by a 2016 study by researchers from the University of Manchester in the UK, pets can help in important ways.

Pets Have Your Back

Your pet is there to greet you when you come home from a long day. Some pets, like dogs, can even pick up on your emotions and show how much they care by giving you some cuddles (after you feed them, of course). If nothing else, you know that your pet will provide you with a consistent routine: Milo wakes you up at the crack of dawn to use the restroom, he needs to be fed twice a day, and he requires his daily walk. In that way, you're there for each other.

While this may sound comforting to just about anyone, it's especially beneficial for pet owners with mental illnesses—especially more serious disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The aformentioned study, which was published in BMC Psychiatry, took interviews from 54 patients about their day-to-day experience living with a long-term mental illness. Helen Brooks, the lead author of the study, tells NPR that many of the patients "felt deep emotional connections with their pets that weren't available from friends and family." Brooks and her team found that not only were pets considered a part of their social networks, but 60 percent placed their pets in the most important circle—the same spot for "close family and social workers," while 20 percent placed them in the circle just beyond that. Pets are able to stand by their owners' sides and provide affection without needing to understand them.

A Good Routine Never Hurts

In addition to being a source of emotional support and a cute distraction, Brooks insists that pets also provide a much-needed routine and sense of purpose for those suffering from mental illnesses. Mark Longsjo, a program director of adult services in Middleborough, Mass., explains to NPR that this study is important for influencing mental health professionals' consideration of pets when building treatment plans.

To showcase the importance of personal pets in coping with mental illness, here are some moving quotes from some of the participants themselves:

"There's like a chasm, deep chasm between us ... [Other people are] on one side of it, and we're on the other side of it. We're sending smoke signals to each other to try and understand each other but we don't always — we don't always understand."

"Well I just love animals, I just really do love animals. I haven't got a partner so I have something around me otherwise I'd go totally bonkers. That's the most important thing to me is my animals."

"[Pets] don't look at the scars on your arms. They don't question where you've been."

"When he comes up and sits beside you on a night, it's different, you know. It's just, like, he needs me as much as I need him."

"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."

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Written by Curiosity Staff January 24, 2017

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