Almost 45 million Americans including veterans are struggling with mental illness. They work to overcome depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and a host of other maladies. Many also suffer from drug or alcohol dependencies. But new research has highlighted a surprisingly effective therapeutic approach to dealing with these serious conditions—pets.
A Friend in Need, A Friend Indeed
Veterans who are dealing with mental or emotional difficulties or battling addictions can become socially isolated. Their situations may be compounded by loneliness, damaged self-esteem, and apathy toward their own situation. Some are plagued by thoughts of suicide or may engage in self-harm. A January 2018 review of previous studies concluded that caring for a pet provides concrete benefits to patients with mental health issues. Pets respond to their owners’ needs intuitively and provide warmth, companionship, and opportunities for communication. Some survey respondents felt they could confide in their pets more than in people and without fear of judgement. They reported that the unconditional love the animals provided them fostered acceptance and raised their self-esteem. The sense of stability and companionship pets provide appears to aid in managing stress and navigating through periods of crisis.
Man’s Best Friend
One study pointed out that pets had a positive effect in helping patients deal with depression following AIDS diagnoses, and that this relationship was more pronounced with dogs than cats. Another study found that veterans suffering from PTSD managed their painful memories or flashbacks more efficiently and with less negative trauma impact, when their dogs comforted them. There are numerous programs to help veterans with disabilities obtain trained service dogs, but more and more organizations are beginning to offer companion animals to returning soldiers to help them reintegrate in society and deal with traumatic service experiences and their associated conditions. Pets for Patriots, Vets Adopt Pets, and Pets for Vets are just a few such organizations who arrange these adoptions.
Filling a Void
Recovering addict Stephen Knight credits his dog with helping him get and stay sober. “There’s a lot of voids that you fill with drinking, and drugs. Dogs can replace that with their love.” He points out that pet ownership acts to motivate responsibility, build trust, and increase social connection. “People are likely to respond more positively to someone who has an animal with them. Animals give us permission to engage in ways we wouldn’t otherwise…at a minimum animals provide a topic of conversation that’s not stressful.”
Kaiser Permanente’s STARS study encouraged pet ownership as a strategy to help facilitate both mental and physical recovery. It found that pets make us healthier in a multitude of ways. Pet owners experienced reduced stress reactions, lowered threat perceptions, and elevated levels of mood. They recovered more quickly from injury and illness. Among individuals who suffered myocardial infarctions, pet owners even experienced reduced mortality rates.
The rigors and responsibilities of pet care can provide a focus for people who are dealing with mental illness or addiction, helping to ground them in routines. Pet ownership encourages healthy attitudes in recovery, such as getting exercise, improving communication, and creating emotional and social connections in the community. The unconditional love a pet provides can help to engender a sense of self-worth and provide long-term companionship and a sense of meaning.
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