Getting you through: The comfort a pet can offer during dark times* – Mental Health and Pets
Written By Martha Anderson – Resident Blogger……….
Clara a woman I know lived with and took care of her invalid mother for many years and when she died, Clara was devastated and her mental health began to suffer. A neighbour became very concerned as she feared she might be suicidal. When she confided her fears to Clara’s cousin the cousin told her not to worry, this could never happen as Clara would not leave Rory her dog.
Sometime later Clara did say that it was Rory who helped her through the darkest days immediately after her bereavement when she had no wish to be in the house without her mother. His presence made the place seem less empty. Delighted to see her, he always had a welcome at the door, which helped her over her dread of returning home after she had been out shopping, or to church. His love was unconditional but of course, he too had his needs, and this gave her a focus outside of herself. He provided a distraction and his antics would make her smile. Watching him play brought her moments of joy at a time when she felt she might never laugh or smile again. This, of course, had also been the case when her mother was alive, but now the whole experience was different. Clara found she needed her dog in a way she had never done before. She who had always helped and cared for him, from when he was a little puppy, found that now he was in some sense caring for her. He had not changed but her whole life situation had. Rory always enriched her life and suddenly he was to all intents and purposes enabling her to go on without her mother.
She was able to bestow affection on him and feeding him, even changing his litter box, were tasks that now could actually stop her thinking in a negative manner. His daily demands became a means whereby she was almost forced to think positively and she tended to making life positive for him. Walking him in the park took on a new meaning and was even more of a welcome routine. Clara benefitted psychologically and physically from it at a time when she needed it most. Exercise releases serotonin, the chemical which contributes to well-being and happiness. Low serotonin levels have been linked to depression. Her motivation was minimal as is often the case for people who are depressed but she would not deny her dog his exercise, so she forced herself to go out and to spend longer with him throwing his frisbee and ball.
It gave her a sense of purpose at a period when she felt anchorless in a world no longer inhabited by her mother, whom she had loved and cared for and who had been a friend as well as a parent. Rory needed her still and if she was not there who would care for him? It has been proven that increased physical activity is associated with alleviating symptoms of depression and that petting an animal can actually reduce stress in humans. Walking Rory in the neighborhood also helped her meet people at a time when social contact was more important than ever before.
Studies have indeed shown that dogs, in particular, are able to mimic the facial expressions of ‘their’ humans. This suggests that they have a capacity to empathise and can be a real comfort in times of sorrow. We often hear how actions speak louder than words; a presence or gesture can be more effective, for example, a hug. Rory provided this and more and he was also totally accepting of Clara even when she was at her lowest. She could be in floods of tears feeling and looking in a bad way but his love for her was unconditional. He took her at face value without expectations and lived in the moment with her, not asking questions just being ‘there’.
Clara said she had not wanted to keep going when her mother died. While she had not ‘contemplated’ suicide as such, neither did she want to live. Sadly there are people who in her situation have taken the decision to put an end to a misery they believe will not pass. Having an animal in your life is not necessarily going to help prevent a person from this course of action. However it would seem, and Clara’s story is an example, that pets can go a long way to keep us stable when the balance of our mind is disturbed. They can make the road more than a little easier. At times when we may feel that we cannot continue on the journey, they are there by our side to give us constant affection, comfort and love; helping to dispel the darkness.
* I sought permission to tell this story and the names of my friend and her dog have been changed.