Pets and a human's depression

18:32, Oct 09 2012

Thirteen years ago I had my first brush with a strange phenomenon.

I changed jobs that year, and found myself not coping with it. Suddenly I was out of my depth: so much of my confidence vanished that on some days I couldn't lift the phone to make a simple call. Panic attacks came daily. When I could, I stole away to a room where I could lie on a couch, in the dark, till I felt calmer.

I told nobody and sought no treatment. After eight months my confidence started to came back, the panic subsided, and I wondered what it had all been about.

A year or so later, as I looked through a pile of publishers' review copies sent to me as books editor of a newspaper, I noticed The Noonday Demon, by Andrew Solomon. The book had received a lot of favourable coverage. I took it home and read it.

It was a brilliant "atlas" of depression: what depression does, what might cause it, how it feels, how it's treated. I decided that depression was probably what I had experienced at the time of my job change, but that I'd been lucky to get away with a mild dose compared with what some people reported - people who lost all interest in everything; people who stayed in bed, or on the floor, for hours or days, unable to summon enough presence of mind or motivation to feed themselves properly or tackle the mountainous complexities of catching a bus, much less face the outside world.

In the past few years, that grimmer version of depression has visited me, and proven to be a guest I can't easily evict.


But hang on, this is a pets blog, you're thinking, not usually a "me" blog and not a mental health blog. Well, I wanted to write, today, about what many depressed people find is true for them: that pets make a difference, that pets can help heal. I believe that many of you will be able to match in your own experience some of what I say.

I believe that having pets is a challenge to depression, first, because pets cause chores that have to be done. You have to feed them. You have to clean up after them. You have to exercise them. You have to take them to a vet. All these little chores, when you keep on top of them, add up to the fulfilling of a responsibility - a little achievement that rebuts depression's otherwise convincing argument that you're a failure. And these chores keep you in a routine when otherwise you'd tend to just let it go.

Pets also make you smile, and though it sounds a banal point, every smile you manage is a subversion of depression's tyranny because even just acting happy is proven to boost your actual happiness. And my pets make me smile - every day, many times a day. They look nice, they feel nice. They're uncomplicated. They're smile generators. Watching the dogs trot along on the leash, legs blurring and ears flailing, makes me grin however often I see it. Even at the worst times of my latter-day depression, when I couldn't see the point in checking the letterbox, or shaving, or bringing in rain-soaked washing from the line, I could sometimes manage a walk with the dogs - and as a result feel uplifted and engaged with the world.

And pets like you. They want to be with you. Even when you're curled foetally on the couch too crushed to turn a light on, your dogs still think you're Caesar Augustus and your cat wants to be right there with you, not anywhere else. Depression likes to remind you, the lofty human, of all your faults - and, being depressed, you believe what it tells you. But your pets don't believe it. They see you as the same person you were before that mood-wrecking, behaviour-skewing illness came along, and the person you will be again. Your pets remind you that there's a you, beyond and independent of depression; they challenge you to choose who knows you better - them, or it.

I've read a lot of stories about people who say that a pet "got them through" a bad time. I believe that pets are doing that all the time, giving that edge of comfort and affection that for some people means the difference between not-coping and coping.

For me it has not quite been like that. My pets didn't get me through (if indeed I'm "through" - using the past tense seems presumptuous). I've needed some two-legged help: friends, a doctor, a counsellor and, above all, a partner who's committed to me whether things are bad or good. Strong connections to those key people have been more crucial than anything.

My pets, though, are part of the picture. They have given me responsibility and routine, mood boosts and distractions, and companionship. It's a companionship that's constant and generous and uplifting, and it's different from the kind of friendship people have with each other. A pet won't fall out with you, or say the wrong thing, or make an uncharitable judgment about you; it'll just continue liking you, a lot, and gaze at you every day with confidence. Pets know you, they don't judge you. Sometimes you just want that.

PS: A caution. I don't advocate giving a depressed person a pet as a form of therapy in place of the help that other people can give. I don't think that a pet will cure any and all kinds of mental illness; for some people, a pet would be another responsibility that they can't stay on top of. I do believe that a pet can be part of a formula for recovery - along with informed advice, medication, exercise, and so on.

Today is World Mental Health Day, with the theme this year "Depression: A Global Crisis".

Here is a useful article on the advantages - and cautions - of pets as depression therapy.

More good advice here.

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Picture: Erin McNulty

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