Recent data indicates that one in six adults in the United States has some form of mental illness. It’s important to note that there are varying degrees of severity that pros classify as either AMI (Any Mental Illness) or SMI, Serious Mental Illness.
While anxiety and depressive disorders are the most common, other types of illnesses include anxiety, trauma and eating disorders, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar mood disorder and personality disorders. Even though all of these afflictions bring something different to the table, each one can benefit from the mood-boosting power of dogs — both as a pet or as a trained therapy animal. Here’s how.
Stress Reduction: There’s a reason why you feel a bit happier when you pet a dog. Research has shown that the feel-good chemical called oxytocin is released — it’s the same one you experience when hugging someone you love. At the same time, the stress hormone known as cortisol drops. What makes this such a powerful catalyst in stress reduction is the fact that oxytocin promotes feelings of attachment, which can be key for helping someone who’s struggling with feelings of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.
Social opportunities: Mental illnesses are associated with feelings of isolation and loneliness — both of which can make it difficult to rally when it comes to extracurricular activities. Having a dog makes it impossible not to leave the house, as you’re responsible for taking it for daily walks so it can expel energy and do its business. Walking a pooch is also a great opportunity to be social with others, whether it’s at the dog park or the outdoor cafe where you take a morning coffee.
Not only is this a confidence-booster, but also it can be a springboard into a side activity as a professional dog walker. Along with making a little extra cash, benefits include regular exercise, which elevates mood-boosting endorphins and improved mental well-being — not to mention, a sense of independence by being your own boss.
Improved health: Depression can have a negative impact on the heart. Research shows that owning a dog can help with the reduction of heart disease because you’ll be more active. Even if you’re interacting for as little as 12 minutes a day (Note: Dog ownership requires more of a commitment), a furry friend can also reduce blood pressure and anxiety. This is one of the reasons why therapy dogs are so effective.
A safety companion: Along with the benefits above, trained companion dogs can help someone with a mental illness through an extremely difficult moment — potentially even saving a life. For example, it’s not uncommon for a dog to wake up its owner if it’s having a nightmare due to post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s even some evidence that dogs can warn their companions before they’re going to have a seizure.
A sense of purpose: Caring for an animal means playing an important role in its development and happiness. This level of responsibility can help someone struggling with a mental illness have a newfound sense of purpose while boosting mood and self-confidence. Just make sure you’re well enough to own up to all the daily obligations that come with owning a pet as its well-being is just as important as yours.
The healing power of dogs should not be taken for granted. In fact, the health-related benefits that come with being around animals, in general, goes back 150 years in the medical world. While owning a dog will not completely cure someone of a mental illness, it can definitely help with their treatment program as a whole.