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Pets help people through mental illness

Previous research has shown how pets help to lower blood pressure, to ease stress and to help children with autism. In addition, so-called ‘therapy animals’ have been used to assist people with disabilities.

The new finding into the role cats and dogs play with those suffering from mental illness comes from the University of Manchester. The research relates to the analysis of a study involving 50 adults diagnosed with long-term mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Each of the subjects had pets. Of these, twenty-five considered their pet to be a vital addition to their social circle. NPR reports that each subject took part in a detailed questionnaire. The survey included giving each person a diagram that contained a square positioned in the center. The square was designed to representr the person.

Clustered around the square a series of circles was placed. The subjects were asked to allocate a spot in the circles for the people, places and things that provided them with comfort and support. The subjects were also asked to put the one thing that was closest to them nearest to the square. Sixty percent of the subjects put their pet in the first circle. Interestingly the pets outranked family and friends. A further 20 percent of the subjects placed their pets second, below family but above material things.

The subjects were then interviewed to ask why they ranked their pets so highly. The people reported things like their pets providing them with a connection with the world or providing direct comfort. Others said interacting with their pet prevented them from retreating too deeply away from ‘real life.’

Talking with Laboratory News, lead researcher Dr. Helen Brooks, who works at the University of Manchester explained: “The people we spoke to through the course of this study felt their pet played a range of positive roles, such as helping them to manage stigma associated with their mental health by providing acceptance without judgment.”

The research is published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, with the paper called “Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition.” 

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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