People impacted by mental illness often struggle with feelings of isolation and disconnection from others. But new research is finding that, many people with mental health issues feel deep emotional connections with their pet that are not always available from friends and family.
In a study recently published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, Helen Brooks (a mental health researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK) and her colleagues found that pets can provide more than just emotional support and companionship, but also a distraction from mental illness.
Brooks and her colleagues interviewed 54 people with serious mental illnesses. The participants were asked who they went to for help or advice, where the gained support an encouragement, and how they spent their time. The participants were also given a diagram with three consecutive circles radiating out from a square representing themselves. They were asked to write the people, places and things that gave them support into the circles, with the circles closest to the center being the most important.
Sixty percent of the people who considered pets to be a part of their social networks placed them in the central, most important circle — the same place many people put close family and social workers, while twenty percent placed their pets in the second circle.
Participants in the study described that their pets helped them get out of the house to be around people, helped prevent them from withdrawing from the world. Keeping a routine while caring for their pets (waking up in the morning to feed, groom, and walk them) provided a sense of structure and purpose in their lives. When left jobless, having a well taken care of pet was described as a source of pride.
Although there is much work examining the positive impact of service animals in mental health treatment, more research (such this study done by Brooks and her colleagues) is needed to better understand the potential positive impact of everyday family pets on mental health functioning.