The comforting padding of feet across the otherwise silent house, the welcoming nudge of wet nose on arm and the soothing sense of unconditional love can make lives tainted by mental health more bearable.
Formerly love-deprived Nell, my rescue spaniel, loves her cuddles, and she “asks” for them on a daily basis. The strength of her unconditional and innocent sense of love is palpable and we both derive comfort and a sense of calm from that closeness.
Just by stroking, sitting next to or playing with a pet can help to relax and calm someone with a mental health condition. Dogs especially will encourage their owner to seek exercise and thereby meet other dog-walkers, creating vital social connections. A growing raft of studies has shown that pets can help with numerous issues linked to mental health from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to addictions, stress and feelings of loneliness.
Mental health campaigner Vanessa Holbrow from Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, has been helped on a life-changing level by the power of a similar connection. Vanessa’s border terrier, Sir Jack Spratticus, a rescue from Border Terrier Welfare, won the dog hero competition, Friends for Life, at Crufts 2018. Jack, for short, is credited with changing Vanessa’s life, helping her to live with complex mental health illnesses and find a sense of self, companionship and stability.
Vanessa explains: “Jack had such a bad start in life. It took me a year to train him in order for us to be able to walk in local dog-friendly areas, for example, a seven-mile stretch of beach, on our doorstep. This just shows what love and patience can do. His needs, I strongly sensed, mirrored my own to a degree; put simply, due to inappropriate early life experiences.”
Vanessa was determined not to give up on Jack, and through long hours of patience and training, Vanessa says: “Jack now helps to raise awareness of mental health issues and he is my family. I don’t know what I would do without him.”
Jack was accepted by the organisation Canine Generated Independence in August 2017 and started training to be an official assistance dog to Vanessa. Vanessa chose to go down the route alone, so Jack is now an owner-trained “assistance dog for mental health”, independent of any organisation. Wherever they go, Jack’s status stimulates conversation, raises awareness and helps tocombat prejudice. Jack is a brilliant advocate for the crucial role dogs play for those living with mental health illnesses.
Jack has given Vanessa the motivation and passion to speak on local radio, the confidence to speak in front of the camera for local television, write articles and help organisations including Rethink, Beat and Time to Change. Together, Vanessa and Jack have raised thousands of pounds for mental health charities.
“Jack has been an integral part of maintaining my physical connections to the world,” Vanessa says. “He enables me to go out and meet with other dog-owners. Regularity in seeing people is paramount to continuing a friendship and Jack has made a significant difference with this. This has been an invaluable reminder that other people are there and that they may care about me. This is a chronically unfamiliar concept for me”.
An otherwise isolated person can become more a part of their community by the simple act of walking their dog or chatting about their pet to another person. The responsibility of looking after a pet can also give a sense of achievement and add important routine to a day.
Dr David Cliff, a personal development coach at Gedanken, says: “The presence of an animal can have a supportive and calming effect on people. Stroking pets induces a sense of wellbeing, often creating blood pressure reduction. The warmth of contact, the brisk dog walk to maintain fitness, the cat’s calming purr, all of these offer owners gifts that are hard to place a value upon, but we would be clearly more impoverished without.”
A joint Cats Protection and Mental Health Foundation study showed how cats can help improve mental health. The research involved more than 600 cat- and non-cat-owning respondents, with half of them describing themselves as currently having a mental health problem. The survey found that 87 per cent of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76 per cent said they could cope with everyday life much better thanks to the company of their feline friends. Half of the cat owners felt that their cat’s presence and companionship was most helpful, followed by a third of respondents who described stroking a cat as a calming and helpful activity.
Dr Cliff says: “The care of an animal and the companionship it brings can bring meaning to one’s life, personal enrichment and has been known to reduce suicidal behaviour and encourage people to rework their lives.
“We live in a world of increasingly single-person households and many have described loneliness as almost a disease state in our society. Pets often offer, at least in part, an antidote to that, particularly among people who are, for example, housebound, geographically isolated, have difficulty maintaining adult relationships, have mental health problems, learning disabilities and other challenges that limit or qualify human interpersonal contact.”
From easing in the early stages of alcohol or drug rehabilitation to being a solid support for those who have entered recovery, animals have a lot to offer those struggling from addiction. Through all stages of treatment and recovery, pet therapy can be an enormous help.