Julie MacDonald, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Hull
University students are a particular area of focus in relation to promoting mental health and wellbeing. Recent statistics revealed that in 2015/16, over 15,000 students in their first year of study in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to approximately 3,000 in 2006 (Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), 2017). Starting university is a major life transition which – although it can be very exciting – can also be overwhelming, with students having to deal with academic and social pressures. Students today also have to manage the financial burden of tuition fees and student loans. In addition, students face the potentially negative effects on their well-being that arise from the ‘always-on’ culture of social media and digital technologies (Kross et al, 2013).
These challenges have led to increased use of University-based counselling services, with 94% of higher education institutions reporting an increase in their demand from students (IPPR, 2017). Despite this increase, many more students do not seek treatment for their mental health problems, which – in turn – impacts on their success. Poor mental health is associated with poorer academic outcomes, which may explain some of the 210% increase in university withdrawal from 2009-2014/5 (IPPR, 2017).
As educators, it is our duty to explore evidence-based approaches and interventions for enhancing the health, wellbeing and achievement of our students. Throughout my life I have had pets (such as Tim – see below), and I have always thought of them as my best friends. I feel that they have always been there for me, keeping me company, listening to me, knowing when I was sad or lonely and never judging me. A bit like unconditional positive regard in counselling terms. I knew all this without ever reading literature on the topic. So, it came as no surprise to me when talking with my nursing students that some felt the same way, and that their pet was essential for their well-being. This sparked a professional interest in researching the impact of pets on mental health and well-being, particularly in relation to Higher Education.
On some occasions, having a pet may actually increase the challenges faced by student: the homesickness faced by students leaving home to attend university may be exacerbated by leaving a pet at home. Indeed, some students have said to me that they missed their pet more than other family members!
The death of a family pet can also have an enormous impact on students during their time at University. A pet is a much-loved animal – sometimes loved as much, if not more, than others in the student’s life – and it may be that if the pet becomes ill or dies, the student will require support. For some students, the loss of their pet has had a huge impact on their mental health and their ability to continue on their course. Universities need to appreciate the significance of this relationship, and offer support if students need time away from their studies due to their pet’s death. As educators, we need to avoid an insensitive attitude of ‘it was only an animal’ when students request support or mitigation for pet-related issues. Like any family member or friend, the loss of a companion animal or pet can have a devastating impact on the wellbeing of a student.
Conversely, spending time with animals may reduce some of pressure felt by students. It is becoming increasingly common for universities to bring “therapy dogs” onto campus, sometimes at the start of semester or at exam periods, to help reduce student stress. Students who are at high risk of academic failure or dropping out can ‘feel relaxed and accepted’ following weekly sessions with therapy dogs on campus and petting the animals can help reduce anxiety (Pendry, 2019). It is heartening that Middlesex University have gone further and introduced “canine teaching assistants” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-48097050
Student mental health and wellbeing is a complex and nuanced issue. Whilst animals are only one potential factor in wellbeing – and one possible approach to supporting students – we need to know more about their role in promoting mental health in higher education.
Institute for Public Policy Research (2017) Not by degrees: improving student mental health in the UK’s universities. Available at: https://www.ippr.org/publications/not-by-degrees accessed 9.1.20
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D., Lin, N., Shablack, H., Jonides, J. and Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE, 8 (8), p. eb9841.
Pendry, P., (2019) Dogs ‘prevent stressed students dropping out BBC news available at:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-48806935 accessed 9/1/20.