Welcome to day 21 in the 31-day writing challenge on mental health. Today on a mental health E-mail list I’m a member of, the daily question for discussion was about animals. This inspired me to write a post on how animals can impact mentnal health and help people who struggle with mental illness.
There are many ways in which animals, and especialy pets, can help someone with a mental health problem. For example:
- Pets provide uncomplicated love. While your relationships with family and friends might be strained because of your mental illness, a pet doesn’t care whether you hurt its feelings and doesn’t give you unwanted advice.
- Pets give you a sense of responsibility. While pets do not ask for much, they require a certain level of care. This may seem overwhelming when you’re struggling with mental illness, but it can actually help you focus on something positive instead of on your negative mood.
- Pets require you to get moving. While becoming physically active may seem hard when you’re in the pit of depression or another mental illness, it will actually help improve your mood. Having a pet who requires you to be active, such as a dog, can really help you get motivated to get your butt off the couch.
- Pets help establsih a routine. They need regular feeding, walking or other care. A proper daily routine is good for your mental health.
- With a pet, you’re never alone. You may withdraw from contact with friends or relatives, but your pet is always by your side.
- Pets can help you engage in social interaction. Pets can be an easy topic to talk about that is not laden with negativity. Pets also often function as ice-breakers, for example when you are walking your dog or waiting at the vet’s. Even when your mental illness makes you appear reclusive, people will start interacting with your pet.
- Touching pets can be soothing and thereby improve your mental health.
The benefits of pets can be even greater when the pet is trained as a service or therapy animal. Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a form of therapy by which a specially trained pet interacts with individuals with mental health problems. The benfit of animal-assisted therapy over human interaction is that an animal accepts the individual as they are without judging or being threatening. Like I said before, they don’t care whetehr their feelings are hurt. People with emotional difficulties in particular often find it easier to trust pets than humans.
Like I said, animals can also be an ice-breaker, allowing the mentally ill person to open up more eaisly when interacting with the pet and its handler.
Psychiatric service dogs can be helpful to people with post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative identity disorder, among others. They can, for instance, signal when a person with PTSD or DID is going to dissociate or have a flashback. They can then comfort the person or alert someone else. PTSD service dogs can sense when the sufferer is experiencing a nightmare and then wake them up. They can also enhance the sufferer’s feelings of safety by for example keeping strangers at a safe distance while at the same time encouraging social interaction.
Emotional support or companion animals do not provide any specific tasks for a person with a mental illness, like service animals do. Rather, they are solely there to provide emotional stability and companionship to the mental health sufferer. A licensed mental health professional should indicate that a mental health sufferer requires an emotional support animal. Emotional support animals should wear an identification vest or tag that says they’re an emotional support animal. In the U.S., people with registered emotional support animals are allowed to have their pets live with them even when no-pet policies are in place. People are also entitled to fly with their emotional support animals. However, unlike service animal owners, people with emotional support animals cannot claim access to other public or private places (such as restaurants) with their animals.