How Therapy Dogs Help to Improve the Lives of People with Mental Illness

Mental Health

Dr. Happy

Research suggests that approximately 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 Australians will experience some form of mental ill-health each year. That’s about 4 – 5 million people experiencing significant levels of distress.

Along with this we know that only about 1 in 5 of those who’re suffering actively seek help from appropriately qualified professionals. There are all sorts of reasons for this, including geographical accessibility, cost and most notably “the elephant in the room”, stigma.

Even for those who do seek help from their local doctor or from a mental health specialist such as a clinical psychologist, a cure or even noticeable relief is not always achieved. There’s no doubt that empirically proven treatments help most people most of the time, but the complicated reality is that no intervention is 100% successful, different things work for different people, and we (the “experts”) don’t always know why.

But what we do know is that there are some “common” or “generic” factors that have been found to be associated with improvements in mental health and wellbeing; and one of these is enhancing the relationships and/or sense of connectedness in someone’s life. The flip side of this is that loneliness and isolation is a significant depressant; and has also been found to be associated with other, negative health outcomes.

Another is providing the individual with something to care for. Happiness and good mental health is partly about being loved, but it’s also about loving others! The act of caring for and helping others can be, in its way, profoundly and positively therapeutic.

And a third, common factor is guiding the person to develop a sense of purpose in their life; or quite simply, helping them find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Without this, not surprisingly, hopelessness and helplessness can take over; neither of which do much for positive emotions or wellbeing more generally.

Notably, each of these life-enhancing factors can be found in or attributed to “therapy dogs”. A therapy dog is a canine that’s trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with a range of health and mental-health diagnoses.

According to the Delta Society, Australia’s largest provider of pet therapy services, there’s a strong body of empirical evidence that has shown that pets provide owners with both psychological and physiological benefits and the majority are healthier than those without pets. Compared with non-pet owners, pet owners:

  • Typically visit the doctor less often and use less medication
  • On average have lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure
  • Recover more quickly from illness and surgery
  • Deal better with stressful situations
  • Show lower levels of risk factors associated with heart disease

Just patting or stroking an animal has been shown to reduce stress and increase “feel good” hormones. Caring for someone or something else is linked to higher levels of happiness and positive emotion. Having an opportunity to love something and just as importantly, having an opportunity to be loved by something or being shown unconditional positive regard, as is often displayed by animals, especially dogs, is a wonderful feeling.

Maybe we should all have a therapy dog in our life!

Dr Happy

Please note: Dr Happy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic, please consult your healthcare professional.

Category:Mental Health

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