Animal Angels: How Pets Help the Mentally Ill

You’re already aware that pets provide loving companionship for their owners. But did you know they also play a special role in helping people with mental illness? It’s true. A growing body of research shows that companion animals can inspire those with emotional challenges to live happier, healthier lives. Here’s how pets work their soothing magic on troubled souls.

Encouraging Healthy Routines

People who struggle with psychological challenges sometimes withdraw into their own private worlds for weeks or months at a time. This can cause them to miss meals, neglect personal hygiene, and forget to take medications. Pets act like heroic rescuers in such times, motivating the person to develop daily practices that lead to a happy, productive life.

Providing Playful Distractions

Victims of mental illness often repeat the same maladaptive thought and behavior patterns over and over, shackling them to a destructive form of self-obsession. Pets give these people a reason to focus on something other than their troubles, helping them to develop new and positive ways of relating to themselves and to others.

Reducing Social Stigma

Our culture marginalizes those with mental illness, especially when the sick person exhibits unusual behaviors. Uncaring, ill-informed attitudes form barriers that keep the mentally ill from experiencing the joys of friendship and social acceptance. Pets help to bridge this gulf. Almost everyone loves to see a person walking her pet dog. This wonderful sight helps strangers to break the ice and become friends, coaxing sufferers away from their lonely isolation while debunking harmful stereotypes.

Encouraging Exercise

It’s hard enough for the average person to turn off the TV or the computer and get moving. How much more difficult is it for someone struggling with psychological challenges to break free from unhealthy habits? This is another case in which a pet can make all the difference in the world. Walking a happy, excited dog who loves her human owner is more like play than work. In this way, an animal companion can encourage a person to take better care of her own physical and mental health.

Enhancing Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Personal achievement and approval from others are essential for cultivating a positive self-image. Those with emotional issues struggle with feelings of uselessness, even worthlessness. Accomplishing worthwhile goals can help these people to dispel their negative thoughts, and nothing is more worthwhile than caring for someone you love. It matters little that the recipient of the care has four legs instead of two. The benefits for the pet owner are substantial, according to an article published by the Mayo Clinic. Caring for a companion animal can give troubled people a reason to feel good about themselves, creating a foundation for future success.

A Word about Substance Abuse Disorders

According to the National Institutes of Health, substance abuse is interrelated with mental illness on many levels. Not only are people with psychological conditions more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, alcohol and illicit drugs worsen the symptoms of many mental disorders. Taken together, the two problems can drive a sufferer past the point of despair. Pets help those in recovery to stay clean and sober, both for their own sake and for the well-being of their companion animal. This provides an affordable alternative to the staggering costs associated with other types of therapy.

Sometimes solutions to vexing problems are ponderous and perplexing. Other times they come covered in fur and wagging their tails. Pets have the power to bring peace to anxious minds. This makes them vital members of our society and worthy of our deepest respect. Think of that the next time you look at your animal friend.

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