Mental health problems, loneliness and poverty are increasingly common, and a recent conference I attended focused on how pet ownership can help to alleviate the impact of these issues.
The three issues are interlinked, with one tending to lead to another. So people who have mental health issues are more likely to have economic challenges and so are more likely to experience poverty, and they are also more likely to find it difficult to integrate socially with others, so they are more likely to be lonely.
People who are lonely are more likely to have mental health issues and are also more likely to fall into poverty. And people who are struggling with poverty may find it more difficult to engage in an active social life, leading to loneliness, and they may also find it difficult to get the help they need if they suffer mental health issues. The three issues are part of a complex matrix of human unhappiness that seems to be increasingly common in contemporary society.
There's no panacea, but the meeting last week made the point that pets can help. There's good evidence that pet ownership alleviates symptoms of mental health and loneliness, and for people on lower incomes, pets can help provide comfort and companionship.
Pets can help people with mental health problems in three main ways.
* Emotional support: they alleviate worry, provide comfort, and mitigate against feelings of loneliness and isolation.
* Practical support: pets encourage people to take physical activity, and pets need to be cared for, providing a useful distraction from other negative happenings in people's lives.
* Pets help to give people a sense of identity and self worth, and they can help to create meaning in people's lives.
Dr Mel Moss, a consultant psychiatrist, discussed animal assisted therapy in acute mental health settings. She uses her own terrier, Mutley, to help severely disturbed people in a highly intensive locked ward. She has carried out trials which show that the presence of Mutley leads to a 70% reduction in the use of solitary confinement, a 70% reduction in the use of restraint as a way of managing difficult patients, and a 90% reduction in the use of high dose medication. These proven facts allow the benefits to be measured in an objective way, but there's also a subjective improvement: the general sense of calmness and increased social ease that's obvious when Mutley walks into a room.
As well as directly offering companionship, dogs act as remarkable social catalysts, making it easier for humans to connect with one another. Many people will be aware of this aspect when doing daily activities such as walking their dog in the park: it's far easier to stop and talk to a stranger if you have a dog at the end of a leash beside you.
The conference also featured "Pets Against Loneliness", a new London-based organisation with a goal to alleviate loneliness in local communities by welcoming vulnerable older people along for coffee mornings with well behaved dogs and their owners who volunteer to come along. The idea is that the presence of the dogs helps to create a mood of easy sociability, and it works really well. Videos of the coffee mornings show people having conversations while petting relaxed friendly dogs. This concept has been designed to be scalable: the volunteers running the project would like to encourage people all over the world to use their template to help lonely older people everywhere. Visit www.petsagainstloneliness.com if you'd like to know more.
The value of pets to homeless people was also highlighted, with a video showing the moving story of a homeless man called Wally, who suffered from alcohol addiction. He had two dogs that meant everything to him, providing a secure anchor in a turbulent life. Eventually he realised that his dogs were more important to him than the drink, and with the support of an animal charity, Mayhew, who agreed to look after his dogs in his absence, he went into rehab. He has now been sober for six years, and he says that without his dogs, he wouldn't be alive.
There are, of course, negative aspects of pets, and it's important to be aware of these, and to manage them accordingly.
First, there is the burden of responsibility. While it's good to have purpose and to be distracted from your worries, if you have a large, bouncy, demanding, out of control dog, it can actually make things worse. This is why it's so important to match pets to owners, ensuring that they suit each other well.
Next, there's the worry of losing a pet. Many people suffer severe grief when a pet dies. The fear of this grief can have a negative effect for years in advance of the actual event.
Also, pets can be a financial burden, from the daily feeding cost to their need for veterinary care. Charities (e.g.Blue Cross) make it easier for people to afford to keep pets, but it can still be a financial challenge.
Finally, pets can create housing problems. Many landlords refuse to allow pets to live with their owners, creating a practical challenge that can be difficult to solve.
Pets have so many benefits for people in difficult circumstances: by working together, we can deal with these hurdles and help people by enabling them to have the comfort of animals in their lives.