Using Animals to Improve Mental Health

BY: MONICA GALLARDO

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in America suffer from an anxiety disorder, with 75 percent of them experiencing their first episode of anxiety by the age of 22. Mental health awareness has become increasingly more important among college students, and while there are countless ways of dealing with stress, animals are popular with people of all ages. To learn more about the relationship between animals and college students, four experts from the Long Beach community shared their knowledge about how animals can affect mental health.

Barbara White, Happiness and Emotions expert at Cal State Long Beach

How does having the company of an animal benefit college students?

“There is research across all ages that indicates positive effects of pets for relief of stress, anxiety and depression. Students who have had pets at home can also find that a pet during college years away from home can be comforting and relieve homesickness. Most pets provide unconditional love and companionship, which can bolster self-esteem. Relief of the above symptoms may also help with such associated symptoms as overeating due to stress or depression."

“Pets can also teach responsibility for someone other than one’s self.”

Would you recommend that everyone gets an animal?

“There are several things to consider before getting a pet.

  • Pets are expensive – food, shots, training, unexpected illnesses or injuries, etc.
  • The responsibilities of caring for a pet on a daily basis may increase stress and impose additional pressures on the student lifestyle.
  • A pet is a long-term commitment. The average pet lives to 12 years of age – beyond the college years and into the years of beginning a career and possibly moving to different areas.
  • Puppies require training. All animals must be protected from harm in and around the living environment.”

How can someone enjoy the company of an animal without the responsibility of owning one?

  •   “ Volunteering at a local shelter.
  • Look for ‘petting places’ where students can visit and pet animals.
  • Arrange for therapy dogs on campus, especially during stressful times such as exam weeks.
  • Influence university policy to allow pets on campus in a safe environment for students and pets.
  • Research what other universities are doing about pet therapy and pets on campus.”

James Amirkhan, Stress and Coping expert at Cal State Long Beach

How do animals help college students deal with stress and mental health?

“Different psychologists would offer different explanations. One theory is that pets restore a sense of control. Back in the 1970s, Ellen Langer showed that when residents of a nursing home were given a pet (or even a potted plant) to take care of, they functioned better, were healthier and even lived longer. This suggests that it is not so much the cuddly aspect of pets, but rather the sense of control that helps college students — especially at times when they feel overwhelmed by the demands in their lives (such as during finals week).”

What are the leading causes of decline in health for college students?

“My research has focused on stress and the link between stress and illness. Interestingly, not all forms of stress will make you sick. The dangerous form of stress (‘stress overload’) has two components: (1) Being bombarded by demands on your time and energy, and (2) feeling you don’t have enough resources to deal with those demands.  Students with adequate resources — friends, time, energy, health, money, etc. — will likely get through finals week without getting sick.  But those with lots of demands (tests, job, relationship, etc.) and who feel depleted and overwhelmed will likely get sick."

“We just completed two years of studies focused on incoming freshmen here at CSULB. We administered a Stress Overload Scale to more than 3,000 of them in the middle of the semester, and found that their scores predicted their grades, and even predicted who would drop out at the end of the year.”

Charles Webb, Psychotherapy expert at Cal State Long Beach

How can animals help a student through psychotherapy?

“Animals can lower anxiety during a session, which can lead to more effective use of therapy time. And since anxiety is one of the main reasons why people seek psychotherapy, the animal can be good medicine in its own right.”

Donna Cortell, board member of Friends of Long Beach Animals

Why do animals react to our emotions?

“It has to do with evolution. In the early days when wolves first made contact with man, they had to read men as to whether they could get closer. They’re always assessing, so it’s a survival instinct to read behavior and the vibe coming off of people, so they’re very cautious. They’re very in tune to human emotion, and they can tell if you’re down or if you’re worried or scared. When I walk my dogs and there’s something that scares me, immediately they change, and one thing I’ve noticed is that dog trainers say, a lot of times when a dog misbehaves when you’re walking them, it’s because they’re feeding off the fear in the person walking them.”