16 December 2016

RESEARCH - Pets Help People With Serious Mental Illness

Pets are good for people’s stress and physical health, can provide therapy at airports, in courtrooms and hospitals, and a new study suggests they can also have a significant impact on people with serious mental illness.

Helen Brooks, a mental health researcher at University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, and her team interviewed 54 people with long-term, serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The scientists asked who they went to when they needed help or advice, where they gained emotional support and encouragement and how they spent their days. Twenty-five of them identified having a pet in their social network.

Participants were given a diagram with three consecutive circles radiating out from a square representing the participant.

They were asked ‘Who or what do you think is most important to you in managing your mental health?’ and wrote the places, people and things that gave them support in the circles, with the circles closest to the center being the most important.

Sixty percent of the people who considered pets to be a part of their social networks placed them in the central, most important circle. 20 percent placed pets in the second circle.

"Many felt deep emotional connections with their pet that weren't available from friends and family," Brooks told NPR.

(Example network diagram, Brooks)

The interviews revealed more about why the pets are so important.

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

"They force me, the cats force me to sort of still be involved," said another.

These research results echo a study done in 2009 which also found pets provide empathy and therapy, connections to the outside world, family, and an increase is self-efficacy/self-worth.

However that study also pointed out “the responsibility of caring for pets, while often empowering, can sometimes exacerbate symptoms for already stressed and vulnerable individuals.”

Both studies agree pets should be part of the intake and treatment plan for individuals with mental health issues.

Pets can be included in risk assessments because patients with animals often say they help keep them from following through on suicidal thinking.

Aftercare planning can involve walking and grooming pets as part of a routine.

Brooks hopes her study results will encourage more health workers to consider incorporating pets into care plans for people with serious mental illness.

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