According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in the United States alone, it is estimated that more than 26 percent of individuals 18 years or older will suffer from some type of mental disorder in a given year. Depression is one of the most common mental disorders, with symptoms ranging from fatigue to hopelessness. In addition to medication, other therapies, including pet therapies, are recognized as depression treatment options among health care professionals.
Depression presents itself in many symptoms, including a disengagement from family and friends, who may judge or misunderstand, and a feeling of isolation. According to Ian Cook, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA, pets offer unconditional love, which patients suffering from depression may find soothing. Dogs offer companionship during dark hours, and the need to provide for a companion animal allows those suffering from depression to focus on a task, renewing a sense of self-worth.
A lack of activity is also common in those suffering from depression. The mere idea of leaving the house is often frightening for those in the throes of mental illness, but the companionship of a dog may ease fear and anxiety. A walk in the park can help patients overcome not only a lack of activity, but also the lack of socialization that is often seen with the isolation of mental disorders. A pet can serve as an icebreaker, a common ground for easy conversation between two owners following a trail on a warm day.
Many patients suffering from depression find caring for themselves to be a staggering thought, but caring for a dog, and slowly easing into a routine that serves a canine's needs, can help people stay on track. Weight loss and disengagement from simple things such as making meals, is often seen in depressive patients, so the task of feeding a dog his breakfast may serve as a reminder that the patient needs to eat as well.
Studies have shown that watching the gentle movement of fish in an aquarium will reduce blood pressure and ease anxiety. It isn't accidental that many dental offices have fish tanks in their waiting areas. The same holds true for the gentle touch of a dog's paw, or the nudge of their nose, as they come to say hello. Touch eases the feelings and anxieties associated with depression and increases the production of serotonin.
Dogs are recognized internationally as service animals for those with many types of disabilities, including mental illness. The American Humane Association and Delta Society offer animal-related therapies for individuals suffering from mental illnesses such as mood disorders and depression. Pet therapy may be a viable option in coping with depression. Those considering canine therapy should discuss the idea with their health care professional. There are numerous groups worldwide that offer animal therapy options, and a new best friend may be waiting at a local animal shelter.
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