I was training a Psychosis Awareness course recently and a video clip that we use in it shows a service user describing how important his dog is to him and his recovery. This led to a discussion, in the group being trained, about the importance of animals to mental health – something that I am very interested in. I muted the idea that it is difficult, if not impossible, for many of our service users to own a companion animal. One of the students said, as a counter argument, that some of the service users, that her assertive outreach team work with, have animals. My reply was to quote the statistic that 50% of UK households have a companion animal and to ask her if 50% of her team’s caseload had animals. They did not.
We talk about recovery in mental illness and the importance of social inclusion for service users but rarely do we really consider these ideas in the context of animal ownership. Those with mental health problems are often discouraged from owning a companion animal by their families, the staff working with them, or other agencies. Usually there are worries about how that person may be able to manage to care for the animal, the cost of keeping it and the accommodation of it should the owner become unwell. Often service users are provided housing that prohibits the keeping of pets.
For many, companion animals provide company, structure to the day and important relationships. Our animals can make us laugh and some may make us feel safer in our homes and communities. Many animals help their owners to have increased social contact, routine and excercise. Why should someone be denied the chance to experience these things, that are options for many of society, just because they have a mental health problem.
Animal assisted therapy is well known and used now in many health care settings. It has a wonderful affect for many of those that the animals come in contact with for short periods, often on a regular basis. Professionals often refer to these experiences for people, thinking that this satisfies the need for contact with animals. Whilst I do not deny that animal assisted therapy is of great value, it is very different to having your own animal in your life on a full time basis. In fact, for me, whose animals are very important, a visiting animal which was not my own, would probably be more distressing than helpful as it would remind me of what I had lost and could no longer have.
We stigmatise people with mental illness if we do not ofer them support to own a companion animal, should they wish to. A large number of our service users can never experience social inclusion unless their wish to have an animal can be accommodated.
So let’s really start thinking about how we might support recovery for our service users who desperately want a companion animal. Instead of dismissing their desires and aspirations in this area, or trying to put them off the idea, let’s support them. Let’s help find them accommodation that suitable for them and their companion animal. Co-write with them care plans that include their pets and ensure adequate crisis and contingency plans are in place should things go wrong, including who they want to take care of their animals. We should be supporting service users to access information and services for their animals, so not only are we thinking of the humans’ welfare, but the animals’ welfare too.
Aniaml ownership is not for everyone, but for those for whom it is important, wherever possible, it should be facilitated.