15-21 May is Mental Health Awareness Week 2023. SCAS trustee Dr. Helen Brooks is a Senior Lecturer and Mental Health Research Group Lead at the University of Manchester. Here, she talks about her research into the role of companion animals in supporting people to manage mental health difficulties.
I live with two poodle crosses called Mylo and Buzz. On those days where I find it hard to get out of bed or to get outdoors, their hopeful little faces and sometime insistent staring are just the motivation I need to get going and to get outside. Exercising with my two canine companions is a great way for me to recharge, de-stress and keep active. Until of course they find something disgusting to roll in on the beach…
My research interests focus on how people manage health conditions by drawing support from the people, places and things around them. Whilst conducting research in this area it became apparent how much value people were placing on their pets in terms of helping them in the day-to-day management of their health. So we decided to explore this in more detail!
The importance of relationships with companion animals is increasingly being recognised. Documented benefits include reduced stress, improved physical health and increased benefits from interacting with others. We were interested in finding out whether people with mental health difficulties conferred similar benefits from pet ownership and whether there were any unique functions of these relationships in terms of mental health management.
We spoke to 54 people who had a diagnosis of a serious mental health difficulty such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar disorder and asked them who or what was important to them in terms of managing their mental health in their day-to-day lives. About half of the people we spoke to (n=24) identified a pet who they felt helped with their mental health.
During interviews, people described the various ways in which they felt that their pets contributed to their mental health which included providing emotional and practical support and contributing to a positive sense of identity.
It’s important to note that people also raised some negative aspects of pet ownership which included the financial and individual resources that were required to successfully look after a pet and the concerns around losing a beloved companion animal. But it’s fair to say that the positive aspects far outweighed the negatives ones for the people we spoke to.
People described how companion animals gave them emotional support by providing them with secure, intimate and reliable relationships. The fact that pets lived with them and were readily available to provide calming and soothing support increased the value that people placed on their pets in this regard.
“Yes, you get comfort from them, because they lick you and all that, and they knead you with their claws and purr at you and all that, so yes, they’re lovely”.(Owner of two cats)
Whilst the contributions to emotional support were anticipated from the outset given previous research, the contributions pets were considered to make in terms of providing practical support to manage mental health were quite surprising. Those included in our study talked about how pets distracted them from upsetting symptoms such as hearing voices or hallucinations and suicidal ideation. They also felt that pets helped to distract them from the often-difficult relationships they had with other people in their lives. They attributed these difficult relationships to a lack of understanding on the part of others about mental health.
“But if I’m here and I’m having…having problems with voices and that, 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”.(Owner of two birds)
“I think it’s hard really when you haven’t had mental illness to know what the actual experience is for someone who has had the experience. There’s like a chasm, deep chasm between us – a growing canyon. They’re 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”.(Cat owner)
Positive sense of identity
Pets were identified as providing a really important form of routine. For example, dogs could provide encouragement for exercise and other animals provided important routines in terms of feeding, grooming and caring for companion animals. This routine was considered to be important for an individual’s wellbeing and sense of identity. Pets were also considered to provide non-judgemental and unconditional love and acceptance which was often not available from the people around them.
“And I just try and make sure that I walk him, and that, in the mornings….but sometimes I can’t be bothered to do that, but then I think….I..I think about, you know, that it’s not fair if he doesn’t go” .(Dog Owner)
“They [pets] don’t look at the scars on your arms, or they don’t question things, and they don’t question where you’ve been” .(Dog owner)
Importantly, despite the significant value that people in this study placed on their relationships with companion animals these were often not recognised by or incorporated into discussions with health care professionals. This meant that people were often very concerned about what would happen to companion animals if they had to go into hospital or where unable to care for them for a period of time. Similarly, people felt it was a missed opportunity for health professionals to get to know them better which might also have therapeutic benefits in terms of their mental health.
SCAS is the UK’s leading human-companion animal bond organisation through funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion animal bond. For more details check out our website at www.scas.org.uk