By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP
Why do people all over the world find solace from cat videos and dog Instagram accounts? It’s because animals soften our souls, appealing to some purer, loving part of ourselves. It’s an inexplicable human-animal bond, enduring friendships and emotional support, which many humans struggle to find in other humans. They brighten so many people’s lives, with an estimated 67% of U.S. households (or 84.9 million homes) owning a pet.
These bonds can be greater still between a person living with mental illness and their pet. In one study, 60% of people with chronic mental health conditions considered their pets to be as important as family members. The healing power of our little friends can be indescribable.
This was the case with my dearly departed cat Dude. Way back when I got him, I could have never imagined the critical, pure loving role that he would come to play in coping with my severe depression. He sensed it, and he lived it with me. He never left my side even when everyone else did. He never left me all alone. He rescued me many times in his instinctive caring way. I’d speak to him in the depths of my depression: “You love me, you’ll always love me no matter what,” and I’d hear his silent response.
Many pets have a natural talent to support us, and they can play a valuable role in addressing mental health issues.
Pet ownership has many possible mental health benefits. It has been shown to reduce stress, depression and anxiety and improve overall quality of life in many ways. Pets provide a calm presence, can divert negative thoughts and promote exercise. Caring for pets can help commit owners to routines, such as daily walking, create a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and facilitate social and community interactions and integration. Some of these benefits can come from just petting or playing with pets. However, the greatest direct benefit of pet ownership is emotional companionship. All loving pet owners know this, but the impact on people living with mental illness can be profound. It can even be life-saving.
A literature review of people living with mental illness shows convincing evidence of this “pet effect.” According to this review, which is consistent with my own personal experiences, pet ownership can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. Pets are an important, trusted and consistent source of unconditional love and affection. They intuitively provide this support in times of need and can be a helpful distraction from ruminations on negative thoughts, including suicidal ideation.
They are also valued as a “person” to speak to, because a person may speak to them without fear of judgment or the sense of being a burden. As they seemingly listen without response, there is no fear of interruptions, criticisms and advice, and there is respect for boundaries and confidentiality. A pet is accepting of their owner without regard for their illness. As a result, they make people feel good about themselves and provide reasons to live.
There are many types of support animals and interventions. The most common animal types are emotional support animals, service animals and therapy animals.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
ESAs provide emotional support and comfort to their owners on a daily basis. They are not trained and do not perform specific tasks. ESAs can include dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, hamsters, horses and others.
For your pet to be considered an ESA legally, you must have a prescription letter, which is renewed yearly from a licensed therapist or doctor, that states you have a mental disability and that an ESA is necessary for treatment. This is the only legal document governing ESAs.
ESAs are considered a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which allows tenants to reside with an ESA in a no-pet dwelling for no additional fee. Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), airlines must allow ESAs to accompany their handlers in the cabin of the aircraft at no cost subject to review of your prescription letter. Unusual animals, such as snakes and rodents, are not permitted to be ESAs. It may be possible to file an appeal if a landlord or carrier denies your request.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a psychiatric service dog as:
Service animals are “working animals” and not pets. Only service animals, including dogs and miniature horses, are accorded special privileges or considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Service dogs are allowed in all public facilities, even when a no-pets policy exists, and an employer may be required to allow a service dog in a place of employment to work alongside their handler. An employer may ask if your dog is required because of a disability and what work has your dog been trained to perform. Service animals are entitled to the same rights as ESAs under the FHA and ACAA.
Service dogs have been shown to especially benefit veterans suffering from PTSD in many ways, including reduced PTSD symptoms and improved quality of life. They have also been shown to reduce anger and anxiety and enhance sleep. They are trained to help veterans cope with anxiety or panic attacks, and create space between the handler and other people. The best place to source a service dog is Assistance Dogs International, including Psychiatric Service Dog Partners. Training and costs of ownership can be prohibitive with some costing upwards of $20,000 for training alone. There are non-profits that provide veterans service dogs at no cost, such as K9s for Warriors.
Trained therapy animals are typically certified dogs that accompany handlers in visits to hospitals, including psychiatric units, nursing homes and others medical facilities. They can offer structured therapy or simply provide comfort to patients. An absolute highlight of two of my psychiatric hospitalizations were the therapy animal visits. Pet Partners is the leading therapy animal non-profit program. Volunteers can have their dogs certified as therapy dogs by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
Psychiatric daytime and residential programs have also incorporated farm animals as part of daily living activities. Farm animals offer some of the same benefits of pet ownership. A few examples of the programs include Fountain House Farm, Gould Farm and Hopewell.
If you can’t own a pet, there are ways you can interact with animals up close. These include volunteering at a local shelter or even visiting animal sanctuaries.
Animals can be a wonderful part of life. They are an underutilized mental health intervention that could benefit many more people. Research has shown their benefits, and anecdotal accounts are plentiful. They can ease the loneliness so many of us with mental illness suffer from, one of the most painful experiences of our illness.
Animals can offer the support that we may lack and complement the support that we have. My personal experiences are similar to possibly millions of people. My Dude helped give me the gift of life when I struggled in the depths of my suicidal depression. He will forever be with me.
“I carry his heart with me, I carry him in my heart. I am never without him.” – E.E. Cummings.
Author’s note: I miss you Dude.
KATHERINE PONTE, BA, JD, MBA, CPRP, is a mental health advocate, writer, entrepreneur and lawyer. She has been living with severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis and extended periods of suicidal depression for 20 years. Katherine is the Founder of ForLikeMinds, an online mental illness peer support community, and BipolarThriving: Bipolar Recovery Coaching, and the Creator of Psych Ward Greeting Cards, which visits and distributes greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is a member of the Board of NAMI New York City. Katherine is the author of ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights and a monthly contributor to the NAMI Blog. She also actively collaborates with the Program for Recovery and Community Health, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, Yale University. A native of Toronto, Canada, Katherine calls New York City and the Catskills home. Her life’s mission is to share her hope and inspire others to believe that mental illness recovery is possible and help them reach it. In the two years since reaching full recovery and starting to share her story publicly, her work has reached over one million people.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Find Your Local NAMI