Pets Provide ‘Unique’ Support to the Mentally Ill

Patients said pets provided much-needed distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences.Patients said pets provided much-needed distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences.

While the usefulness of a companion animal in the case of physical conditions has been accepted and well-documented by the medical community, there is less research available on the role of pets in mental illness. A new study aims to fill this gap by investigating how pets affect their owners’ mental well-being.

Many of these people experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. These feelings have been documented in psychiatric literature and connected with a patient’s so-called ontological security. The term refers to a sense of order, continuity, and meaning in a person’s life, together with a positive outlook on the future.

New research examines the impact of having a pet on the sense of ontological security and well-being of people with mental health problems.

Researchers - led by D. Helen Brooks from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom - interviewed 54 participants who were in the care of community-based mental health services in Manchester and South Hampton, UK.

Participants were at least 18 years old, and had all been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses.

The study consisted of qualitative, semi-structured interviews focused on “ego” network mapping.

Researchers asked the participants to rate the importance of the members of their personal network, using a diagram of three concentric circles. Network members included friends, family, healthcare professionals, family, hobbies, places, activities, and objects, reported.

Participants were asked, “Who or what do you think is most important to you in managing your mental health?” They were asked to place the network members in the innermost circle if they considered them “most important,” the middle circle if they were “important but not as important as the central circle,” and finally in the outer circle if the network members were “important but not as important as the two more central circles.”

Of the interviewees, 46% - 25 participants - placed a pet within the personal communities that help them manage their illness and everyday life. The majority – 60%- placed their pet in the central, most important circle. Another 20% placed their pet in the second circle, and only 3 participants placed their pet in the third circle.

Patients said pets provided much-needed distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences, such as hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, or rumination.

Pets also gave a feeling of responsibility. Having a pet was seen as an effective way to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and also gave owners a feeling of being in control, as well as security and routine. Finally, the feelings of acceptance and unconditional support that pets gave contributed to an overall sense of meaning.

The findings have been published in the open access journal BMC Psychiatry.

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