Roxanne Hawkins, from the University of Edinburgh, UK, was recently awarded £10,000 by SCAS to study the role of the human-animal bond in managing mental health difficulties in young people.
This is one of six pump priming grants that were awarded from Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) 2022 funding round.
Young adulthood is considered a peak age for the onset of mental health difficulties with approximately 75% of mental health disorders being diagnosed between the ages of 18 and 25 years. Anxiety and depression are the most common, and the problems that emerge in young adulthood can persist long-term over the life course. Methods of prevention or successful self-management of symptoms are therefore important to identify. The Mental Health Foundation now recommends pets as a source of improving mental health, yet very little research has examined the psychological implications of the human-pet bond for young adults from the general population in the United Kingdom. Pets cannot ‘fix’ mental health problems, but they can play an important role in the self-management of mental health and prevent worsening symptoms. This, however, may depend on human-pet attachment type (secure vs insecure), pet type (dogs vs cats), psychological and behavioural compatibility, and the absence of pet behavioural problems. Moreover, a secure human-pet attachment may have mutual benefits, promoting positive human wellbeing, and pet welfare. The current study, therefore, aims to explore these important yet understudied variables (attachment type, pet type, compatibility, pet behaviour and welfare) that may underpin the benefits of pets for depression and anxiety in this young at-risk UK population. This study will use mixed methodologies adopting both quantitative methods (questionnaire with validated psychological measures) and qualitative methods (interviews to explore lived experience) providing a nuanced understanding of the human-pet bond for mental health. This study will provide valuable insight into the value of pets in young people’s lives as well as individual differences in the potential capability of pets to both reduce or exacerbate mental health symptomology in this population. The findings will have relevance for the development and evaluation of mental health interventions and treatment protocols aimed at young adults with depression and anxiety, where pet attachment may prove to be a useful tool for mental health improvement. This study may also identify factors that may lead to negative impacts on mental health and pet welfare that will be important for future prevention and intervention.