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Pets and mental health during National Suicide Prevention Month – Red Bluff Daily News


In 2020, 45,979 Americans killed themselves, making suicide the 12th-leading cause of death in the United States, a fact many people do not like to talk about. In addition, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (https://www.samhsa.gov/), in that same year 12.2 million adults seriously thought about suicide. The suicide rates were higher among adults ages 25 to 34 and 75 to 84 years. I bring all of this up because September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

Psychologist and leading expert on suicide, Thomas Joiner, believes suicides usually result from two psychological processes. The first is perceived burdensomeness, the belief that you have become a burden to others. The other is thwarted belongingness, his term for social isolation. We know suicide is predicted by factors which include depression and feelings of being alone. Negative thoughts can become habitual and self-fulfilling, causing a feeling of utter hopelessness.

In addition, those who struggle with depression or other mental health issues, because of the perceived stigma, will often not seek help. Thus, people are more likely to want to commit suicide if the following three factors join to form a “perfect storm”: a feeling that they do not belong; an idea they are a burden to others; and a sense of hopelessness that these conditions will never change.

It often takes only one small action to make a difference in a person’s life. While many suffering from suicidal thoughts will believe everyone is against them, sometimes a good solution can be a non-judgmental friend in the form of a pet. It has been shown that it is possible that a pet can influence, and possibly lessen, the strength of the factors mentioned above. Pets provide companionship which, in many instances, increases a person’s self-esteem.

Taking care of a pet can also affect the perception of being a burden, since caring for a pet contributes to increased feelings of responsibility and a renewed sense of purpose all of which can serve as a buffer against the sense of hopelessness and, ultimately, safeguarding the person from suicidal thoughts and actions.

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (https://habri.org/) funds research into the health benefits of pets and human-animal interaction. Their vision is for the mutually beneficial relationship between pets and people to become universally accepted as an essential element of human wellness.

In May 2019, HABRI and Mars Petcare (https://www.mars.com/made-by-mars/petcare) co-hosted the Summit on Social Isolation and Companion Animals, engaging experts to facilitate the vital role of companion animals and human-animal interaction in addressing the crisis of social isolation and loneliness. Because the wealth of information generated is monumental, the informative materials, reports and resource links which can be used by everyone to make informed decisions that improve the health and wellbeing of people, pets and communities can be found at (https://habri.org/research/mental-health/social-isolation/). Much of it is worth a read.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 2021 Suicide Prevention Report, veterans accounted for 6,261 suicides in 2019, which represented 13.7% of the suicides among U.S. adults. It is also estimated that one in five veterans suffers from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), a psychological disease which often manifests as anxiety, depression, panic, and insomnia.  The National Comorbidity Survey, mandated by Congress to survey psychiatric disorders in the U.S., showed that PTSD was significantly associated with suicidal ideas or attempts.

On August 25, 2021 the “Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act” was signed into law. It is a program through the Department of Veterans Affairs which aims to connect service-dogs-in-training with veterans who have PTSD. Under this law, veterans will be able to train service dogs. At the end of the program, they may adopt their canine pupils.

The national “Pets for Patriots” (https://www.petsforpatriots.org/resources/) program focuses on helping veterans get matched with an animal by working with shelters and other organizations. A more local program is Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation’s (https://www.arflife.org/pets-and-vets) Pets-for-Vets program, which transforms rescue dogs into service animals for veterans with PTSD, etc.

Almost any pet can offer those suffering from suicidal thoughts some help. Playing with, or petting, a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine which help to calm and relax us. Often called the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin promotes intimacy, and scientists have found that dogs and their owners experience surges when they look into each other’s eyes. Endorphins help alleviate anxiety and depression. Laughter is one of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release, and pets can play an instrumental role in inducing that release. Being appreciated by our pets is sometimes all we need to remember that we are a worthy individual.

If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, know that there is assistance. Call 988 or reach out to https://988lifeline.org/ or https://www.linesforlife.org/. In addition, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides an amazing list of resources for either yourself or someone you may know (https://afsp.org/suicide-prevention-resources).

Ronnie Casey has been volunteering with the Tehama County Animal Care Center since relocating in 2011. A retired R.N., she strives to help animals in need within Tehama county. She can be reached at rmcredbluff@gmail.com. 



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