“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,” wrote Anatole France. Those who have owned – and truly loved – a pet recognize that doing so forms a bond completely unlike any other.
Our pets love us in a way that is uncomplicated and unconditional.
They give us warmth and purpose. They depend on us. They encourage us to see the world with a less cynical set of eyes.
As it turns out, they may also help us to cope with severe mental illness.
A study published in BMC Psychiatry found that pets were often cited by those who suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as being a major source of psychological comfort during the times when they struggled most with their mental illness. When incorporated into a psychological self-care routine, pets were proven to ease symptoms and encourage participants to manage their illness in healthy ways. They were also shown to provide non-judgmental companionship in times when human interaction becomes difficult.
“When I’m feeling really low they are wonderful because they won’t leave my side for two days,” said one study participant of their two dogs and two cats. “They just stay with me until I am ready to come out of it.”
This may sound simple, but one would be hard pressed to find that level of devotion and care from a human companion.
Helen Brooks, a mental health researcher at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom and the lead author of the study, confirmed that “Many felt deep emotional connections with their pet that weren’t available from friends and family.” She also emphasized the importance of the sense of purpose a pet can provide. “The routine these pets provide is really important for people. Getting up in the morning to feed them and groom them and walk them, giving them structure and a sense of purpose that they won’t otherwise have.”
For a person suffering from mental illness – or even one who isn’t – having a loved one depend on them can be a powerful force of self-esteem.
The difference we make in our pets’ lives can help us to think of ourselves in a more positive way.
In arriving at these results, the researchers interviewed over fifty people who suffered from chronic and severe mental illness. They were asked to complete diagrams explaining their social support system – defined as those who provided the participants with emotional support, companionship, and advice. Each diagram was constructed with the participant in the center. Around them, three circles radiated outward to reflect their companions’ different levels of closeness.
Nearly half of the participants had pets that they considered to be a part of their social support system.
Of these participants, sixty percent placed their pets in the central level of their social circle, along with their closest friends and family members. Another twenty percent placed them just outside, in the second circle.
Brooks hopes that these findings will encourage more health workers to consider incorporating pets into care plans for people with mental illness.
As Dean Koontz explained, “No matter how close we are to another person, few human relationships are as free from strife, disagreement, and frustration as is the relationship you have with a good dog. Few human beings give of themselves to another as a dog gives of itself.” Who wouldn’t benefit from such a companion?