Teenagers who interact with animals can reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness as they enhance their social support and overall well-being. For teens working hard to maintain their mental health in their sobriety, the simple interaction with animals or a pet can alter the tendency of those with mental problems to focus negatively on themselves; as well as help teens with mental issues become more involved in their environment in non-threatening ways.
At Paradigm Malibu, for instance, Gator the therapy dog has “an unrivaled ability to bring the morale of the group up,” said Robert Burns, teacher at the Point Dume program.
“On our toughest days, Gator bursts through the classroom door and locates the kid who is struggling and in the most dire need of support,” Robert said. “His presence has been one of my greatest tools in supporting the youth during difficult emotional times.”
Pets and animals can also help people manage their long-term mental health conditions, according to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute – HABRI – a non-profit research and education organization that is sharing scientific research to demonstrate the positive health impacts of companion animals.
The following information, provided by HABRI, offers more details about the impact that animals can have on a teenager’s life:
The Role of Pets in Management of Mental Health
The consisted presence and close physical proximity of their pets provided an immediate source of calm and therapeutic benefit for the pet owners.
A 2016 study explored the role of pets in the social networks of people managing a long-term mental health problem. The study found that pets contributed, over time, to individuals developing routines that provided emotional and social support.
- Pets provide the ability to gain a sense of control inherent to caring for the pet.
- Pets provide a sense of security and routine developed in the relationship, which reinforced stable cognitions from the creation of certainty that they could turn to and rely on pets in time of need.
- Pets provide security through generating a sense of order and continuity to individual experiences and through providing a sense of meaning in an individual’s life.
- Pets provide a distraction and disruption from distressing symptoms, such as hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, rumination and facilitating routine and exercise for those who cared for them.
Given the evidence that links social isolation as a risk factor for mental health and friendships, studies have focused on the impacts of companion animals as social facilitators or catalysts for friendship formation or social support networks.
In a study on the role of pets as facilitators of getting to know people, friendship formation and social support networks, pet-owners were found to be an important factor in developing healthy neighborhoods.
- Pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners.
- Around 40% of pet owners reported receiving one or more types of social support (emotional, informational, instrumental) via people they met through their pet.
- For many pet owners, their pets also facilitated relationships from which they derived tangible forms of social support, both of a practical and emotionally supportive nature.
Pet ownership has been found to be positively associated with forms of social contact and interaction, and with perceptions of neighborhood friendliness.
- Pet owners have scored higher on social capital and civic engagement scales, suggesting that pet ownership provides potential opportunities for interactions between neighbors.
Reduction of stress-related parameters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, improvement of immune system functioning, pain management, increased trustworthiness of and trust toward others, reduced aggression, enhanced empathy and improved learning have indicated the impact of Human–Animal Interaction on stress.
To measure the impact of pets on stress levels, many studies incorporate a transient stressor, such as performing a challenging arithmetic problem.
One study examined the effect of pet ownership on cardiovascular responses to psychological stress (mental arithmetic task) among a group of hypertensive individuals in high-stress professions. The study found that:
- Persons with low social support systems are likely to benefit in particular from the enhanced environment that pets provide.
- The presence of pets provided the kind of non-evaluative social support that is critical to buffering psychological responses to stress.
Another study measured the bio-behavioral stress response, measured by systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol, SBP, DBP, HR and self-reported anxiety and stress for therapy-dog owners interacting with their own dog and dog owners interacting with an unfamiliar therapy dog.
The study results support a buffering effect on the stress response associated with owners interacting with their dogs that may extend to interactions with unfamiliar therapy dogs:
- The therapy-dog owners perceived less stress and anxiety during the intervention.
- The unfamiliar therapy dog group experienced greater reductions in physiological measures.
- Positive attitudes toward pets were associated with decreased levels of self-reported stress and salivary cortisol (a biological marker of stress) and SBP.
Many studies on the impact of pets and human-animal interaction on anxiety focus on hospital patients, who are prone to high levels of anxiety.
- In a study of hospitalized patients with heart failure, patients that received a therapy dog visit for 12 minutes had significantly greater decreases in systolic pulmonary artery pressure during and after and in pulmonary capillary wedge pressure during and after the intervention.
- Patients that received a dog therapy visit also had the greatest decrease from baseline in state anxiety sum score compared with the control groups.
HABRI is working to establish, through science and advocacy, the vital role of companion animals in the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. To learn more about HABRI, visit habri.org.
Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.