How Pets Help Family Members With Mental Illness
Pets are very important family members for us all, but they can play a special role in the lives of those with mental illness. We never had pets growing up, but since I got a dog as an adult my brother has become an honorary pet parent. I have been amazed watching how his relationship with my dog has helped him to cope with symptoms of chronic anxiety and depression — here is a short reflection on the benefits of pets for family members with mental illness.
Two Ways Pets Help Those with Mental Illness
Pets Have Low Relational Demands
Relationships with humans can be tricky — there are so many unwritten rules and unspoken demands of a human relationship. If you’re somebody with anxiety, you can easily overthink interactions with people in your family and friend circle. Not so with pets — pets will generally treat you with the same level of affection regardless of how you present on any given day. Even when you’re neglecting basic hygiene and self-care (as can often be the case in acute mental illness), your pet still wants to cuddle up next to you. When you’re so overcome that all you can do is cry, your pet doesn’t ask difficult questions, or even seem alarmed.
In my work as an occupational therapist, we talk a lot about the concept of unconditional positive regard — pets are the perfect example of this. Come as you are, and they’ll simply love you without hidden terms or conditions. Having that kind of relationship in your life (even if it’s with an animal) boosts your self-esteem and mood, which is partly why pets and family members with mental illness can be such a great pairing.
Pets Create Routine
This might seem counterintuitive, but when my brother is going through a bad mental health period I often call in a favor and ask him to mind the dog for a few days. Why? Pets put us in a routine without us even having to think about it.
If my brother wants to sleep all day, it’s not an option when he’s minding the dog — the dog needs to be let out to the bathroom at a reasonable hour of the morning. The dog needs to be walked, so my brother has to get dressed and leave the house for exercise at least once per day. The dog needs regular meal times, which reminds my brother to grab food for himself at those times too. As an animal lover, my brother will not neglect this little creature’s needs — and meeting them forces him to meet some of his own at the same time.
I understand that my perspective is limited, as young dogs are definitely on the needier end of the spectrum when it comes to pets — I’d be very interested to hear about the experience of other pet owners, and whether or not caring for a pet impacts your family’s mental health in any way. Leave a comment and let’s talk.