‘He’s My Mate You See’: A Longitudinal Critical Discourse Analysis of the Therapeutic Role of Companion Animals for People Living with Severe Mental Illnesses

Article Summary by Helen Brooks

There is increasing evidence of the supportive role pets play for people with mental health conditions. Pets have been shown to distract people from upsetting symptoms and experiences, offer an important source of comfort and routine, and promote social interaction. This paper aimed to extend our understanding of this therapeutic role by examining how people talked about their relationships with animals over a 12- month period and comparing this to how they talked about relationships with other people in their lives.

We spoke to 12 people, who had a diagnosis of severe mental illness such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder and who identified a pet as being important to their mental health, three times over a 12 month period.

We found that compared to interactions with humans, relationships with pets seem to be more predictable, consistent and reliable. Pets provided an important source of humour, vibrancy and connection to the world that was often not available from elsewhere. The irregular and minimal involvement of some human network members provided a stark contrast to the deep, dependable input from pets. People described how they often lost contact with friends and family members over the 12-month follow up period because relationships were too difficult to manage. People felt others did not understand their condition, overstepped boundaries or asked too much of them.

People told us that they felt able to talk to their pets about their mental health and that pets accepted them and provided comfort without needing to respond with words. They also did not worry that their pets were judging them or their past behaviour, which they often worried about in human relationships. These features of relationships with animals meant that pets played an important role in enhancing self-esteem, confidence and a positive sense of self which helped people to deal with the negative experiences associated with mental illness.

Five participants lost a pet during the 12-month study. Reasons for loss included death of an animal, giving the pet away because they felt unable to care for them or pets being taken away during a hospital stay. Losing a pet could be devastating for people especially if they had limited support from elsewhere. The impact of losing a pet appeared to be poorly understood by and rarely incorporated into health services and people felt it was important that this changed.

This study adds to existing evidence that supports the inclusion of pets in mental health self-management. The findings will help us consider how we might usefully incorporate relationships with pets into health care planning and delivery.

Listen to Helen Brooks discussing her article in the soundbite below:

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