Pets Can Be Life-Changing For People Living With Severe Mental Illness

Many with long-term illnesses say pets are among their closest relationships.
Pets are an important source of emotional support for many people with serious mental illness, a new study finds.
Peter Rutherhagen via Getty Images
Pets are an important source of emotional support for many people with serious mental illness, a new study finds.

Living with mental illness can be lonely. More than half of people with serious psychiatric conditions say they feel isolated, struggling with an impaired ability to make friends, a lack of opportunities to socialize, and a stigma against mental illness.

Through the ups and downs of life with a mental health condition, pets offer a powerful form of connection and support. Many people living with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder say that owning pets, more than anything else, has helped them to manage their condition, according to new research.

The study participants spoke in emotional terms about their relationships with dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs and other animal companions.

“When I’m feeling really low they are wonderful because they won’t leave my side for two days,” one participant, an owner of two dogs and two cats, said of his pets. “I will get up and I will let them out to the toilet and I will feed them, but I am straight back in bed ... and then they’ll just come straight back up and just stay with me until I’m ready to come out of it.”

““When I’m feeling really low they are wonderful because they won’t leave my side for two days."”

University of Manchester psychiatrists who conducted the investigation found that pets often fulfilled a function similar to that of a close human relationship.

“We know that social isolation is both a cause and effect of mental illness,” Dr. Helen Brooks, a research fellow at the university and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post. “People in this study told us that relationships often broke down because friends and family did not understand their condition, or that they did not feel motivated or able to socialize with others because of their condition.”

The study, published Dec. 9 in the journal BMC Psychiatry, looked at 54 adults living with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, all of whom had at least one pet. Around half of the participants said that they considered their pets a part of their social network.

The participants answered questions about how they spent their days, where they turned for emotional support, and how they managed their mental illness. They were also asked to create “network diagrams” mapping the support structures in their everyday lives. Of those who included a pet in their social network, 60 percent placed their pet in the most important circle of that network, also commonly occupied by family members and social workers.

One participant placed his 10 pet birds in the inner circle of his diagram (pictured below), along with his psychiatric nurse and social worker.

A study participant's network diagram.
BMC Psychiatry
A study participant's network diagram.

Most people reported either having difficult relationships with friends and family, or having a limited social network outside of their pets.

In these cases, pets provided an important source of emotional connection and companionship, taking on a function similar to that of a human relationship.

“I feel that the pets ... depend on me and also I have daily contact with them,” the man with the 10 birds said. “They also give me a sense of well-being, which I don’t get from [anyone else] because most of these interactions with my Mum, Dad, [friend], are all by telephone rather than physical contact, and that’s the big difference is the empathetic physical presence.”

Beyond proving emotional support and companionship, taking care of a pet was often described as instilling a sense of routine and feelings of self-efficacy. Some pet owners also said that their animal companions offered a welcome distraction from their most uncomfortable symptoms.

The man with the birds said that when he was hearing voices, focusing on the birds’ singing could help him get through it. Another participant said his two cats helped him get through the most difficult moments of his illness.

“When you just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, the cats force me to sort of still be involved with the world,” he said.

These heartfelt testimonies suggest that pets should be taken seriously by mental health care providers as a low-risk treatment option that could truly change the lives of those suffering in silence.

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