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Pets offer valuable support for owners with mental health problems

9 December 2016

Pets can help people manage their long-term mental health conditions, according to research published in the open access journal *BMC Psychiatry.

The consistent presence and close physical proximity of pets contributed to people feeling secure and provided a source of calm and therapeutic benefit for the pets’ owners. The researchers, based in Manchester and Southampton suggest that pets can be considered a main source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems.

Dr Helen Brooks lead author from the University of Manchester said, “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. Pets were also considered particularly useful during times of crisis. In this way, pets provided a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other family or social relationships. Despite the identified benefits of pet ownership, pets were neither considered nor incorporated into the individual care plans for any of the people in our study.”

Dr Brooks added: “These insights provide the mental health community with possible areas to target ntervention and potential ways in which to better involve people in their own mental health service provision through open discussion of what works best for them.”

The researchers interviewed 54 participants, aged 18 and above in Manchester and Southampton. They were all under the care of community-based mental health services and had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Participants were asked to rate the importance of members of their personal network including friends, family, health professionals, pets, hobbies, places, activities and objects, by placing them in a diagram of three concentric circles. Anything placed in the central circle was considered most important; the middle circle was of secondary importance and the outer circle was for those considered of lesser importance.

Professor Anne Rogers from the University of Southampton said: “The data collected on pets as part of a study funded by NIHR CLAHRC Wessex partner Solent NHS Trust, points to the way in which a diverse range of forms of support are needed to assist with everyday living with a mental health problem. We are particularly keen to highlight the non traditional forms of management that people access on a daily bases and pets are one such source of support that are generally not thought about by providers or commissioners.”

Pets played an important role in the social networks of people managing a long-term mental health problem, as 60% placed them in the central most important circle and 20% placed their pet in the second circle. The participants stated that one reason for this was that their pet helped by distracting them from symptoms and upsetting experiences such as hearing voices or suicidal thoughts. Participants from the study were quoted as saying:

“I felt in a sense that my cat was my familiar in that he understood or was an extension of my thoughts.”

“When I’m feeling really low they are wonderful because they won’t leave my side for two days.”

“You just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, they force me, the cats force me to sort of still be involved with the world.”

“I’m not thinking of the voices, I’m just thinking of the birds singing.”

The interviews supported existing evidence that some participants feel distanced from healthcare and uninvolved in discussions about services. Taking more creative approaches to care planning, such as including the use of pets, may be one way of helping participants because of the value, meaning and engagement that individuals have with their companion animals. 

-ENDS-

For more information from NIHR CLAHRC Wessex* – contact Jamie.Stevenson@soton.ac.uk  Tel: 023 80597974
Blog Article: https://nihrclahrcwessex.wordpress.com/the-hidden-role-of-pets-in-the-management-of-mental-health-problems-guest-blog-from-dr-helen-brooks

BMCPsychiatry: Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: A studyin the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with along-term mental health condition

Authors: Helen Brooks1, Kelly Rushton1, Sandra Walker2, Karina Lovell1 and Anne Rogers2.

1Division of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work, University of Manchester, UK.

2 NIHR CLAHRC Wessex, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Southampton, UK.

More information
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. The NIHR is the research arm of the NHS. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government’s strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website (www.nihr.ac.uk). 
There are 13 CLAHRC’s in England and they are all funded by the research arm of the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research. CLAHRC stands for Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care and often teams from across England will collaborate with their local NHS partners and other CLAHRC’s to look at common health conditions. In the case of this research publication some of the work was conducted in Greater Manchester and the Wessex region by a team based at the University of Southampton


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