It’s 2019, and we still have a pretty stunted and limited understanding of mental health. While the awakening has been gradually happening, the majority still thinks of mental health and well-being as a stigma. When, in fact, it is anything but that. Among other things, mental health conditions are instrumental for the overall well-being of a person. So to treat it as a taboo would be a great disservice to a person’s social and psychological well-being.
On World Mental Health Day today, we asked people to describe the one thing that brought them great joy and light, when they were dealing with the tough times. The answers from many: their pets, their reason for being.
Twenty-seven-year-old Chennai-based English language teacher Shreya Ghosh had been struggling with depression and anxiety for over four years, when she brought in her Labrador pupper Sasha last year. “The day was June 8, 2018 when Sasha came home. She was 42 days old then. Ever since I got diagnosed, I wanted to bring in a pet dog, but did not have the courage. I was barely taking care of myself, how could I have cared for another innocent being?” she said.
“I was not sure how I was going to do it, but I had to because Sasha was already home and had no clue what was happening. The day I held her in my arms was the day I knew she would change my life and perspective,” said Ghosh, adding she felt this instant need to put Sasha before her. “Everything was about her. I thought of all my decisions and how they would impact her. She filled the house with her energy and playfulness and made me realise what all I had been missing out on all this while,” she said.
“When I first got her, Sasha was sick. But she fought and that made me realise that if this little pup can, then so can I. Being an adult, fighting what is inside my mind should be easier, I thought. Sasha gave me the courage to quit my corporate job and follow my passion, but most importantly, she taught me how to live. Now, if I am sad about something, I just play with her and the dark feelings fade away in seconds,” said Ghosh.
Ranveer Bhatnagar, a Gurgaon resident, echoes these thoughts. He first found Tyger — an Indian pariah — abandoned on the streets around three years ago. “I was not doing so well mentally, and did not want to medicate. So Tyger became my medicine. He is the reason I get out of bed even on my worst days. Now, instead of wasting away in bed, I have to be up and about for his sake, for his walks and vet appointments. He is a responsibility. Sometimes, he is a pain — especially when he tears up my favourite jackets. But, he is also the reason I am alive,” he said.
Over the years, doctors have found a key connection between pets and mental health. As such, animal-assisted therapy programmes have become an integral part of mental health treatment. Having a pet at home helps in lowering of stress and anxiety, thus emboldening self esteem and well-being.
In fact, it is believed the first research on how pets boost mental health was done some 30 years ago. Psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania found that petting a dog brings about the following changes in the body: blood pressure gets normal, heart rate slows down, muscle tension relaxes, breathing becomes regular, etc. These are all signs of reduced stress.
Some recent studies, published by the American Psychological Association, have reiterated the aforementioned facts. Additionally, it has been found that pet owners show visible signs of mental well-being, like improved self esteem, feeling less lonely and afraid, physical fitness, feeling more extroverted, to name a few.
“To put it simply, having a pet around can be a stress buster. And that’s why a lot of people actually benefit by having a pet. Pets are non-judgmental, and they give humans a sense of responsibility. But it works for people who like animals. There are also people who get extremely flustered around animals, but that’s a different story,” Chennai-based psychiatrist and director of SCARF Dr Padmavati Ramachandran said.
“A pet can be therapeutic — dogs, cats, birds. They help in reducing stress levels, and more than the biological angle it is the psychological effects. It’s about having another living being around,” she said.