Many people across the country struggle with mental illness. The constant stressors of everyday life combined with the political divide and a recent global pandemic have left many people feeling lonely, scared, and sad. Finding ways to improve mental health not only strengthens our quality of life as individuals but improves our functioning on a community and societal level. There are many different ways to treat mental illness, and emotional support animals are a possible intervention. Today, you are going to learn about the proven benefits of emotional support animals, their commonality, and other strategies to improve your mental health.
Mental Health in the United States
Mental health disorders, also referred to as mental illness, can range in severity and symptoms. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a mental disorder refers to significant dysfunction in a person’s emotional regulation, cognitive abilities, or behavior that results in an impairment in one or more facets of functioning. If you struggle with a mental illness you know that the symptoms can impact your ability to function in many areas of life including at school, at work, or with your family. Some people require intensive interventions such as intensive therapy and medication while others can alleviate symptoms through the implementation of skills and lifestyle changes.
As of 2021, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that 57.8 million Americans have a mental illness. That equates to one in five adults in the United States. This statistic includes any mental illness including severe mental illness. Mental illness is more prevalent in females (28.1%) than males (18.1%) and individuals between the ages of 18-25 had more incidents of mental illness than adults who were 26 years old and older.
The Most Common Mental Health Disorders and Their Symptoms
Certain mental health disorders are more common than others. Despite being separate diagnoses, certain symptoms are common among more than one disorder. For example, a change in appetite can be a symptom in both anxiety and depressive disorders. Below are specific characteristics and statistics for common mental health disorders.
In 2019, 301 million people (adults, children, and adolescents) across the world had an anxiety disorder and symptoms include:
- Intense and excessive worry
- Feelings of fear
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Behavioral disturbances that can include avoidant behavior and irritability
Common anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Separation anxiety
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
Depressive disorders are also common. In 2019, 280 million children and adults experienced a depressive disorder and common symptoms include:
- Significant mood changes that can include irritability, sadness, and emptiness
- Anhedonia, which is the loss of pleasure in once-enjoyable activities
- Sleep problems including too much or too little sleep
- Overeating (hyperphagia) or undereating (hypophagia)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Thoughts of suicide
To be diagnosed with a depressive disorder, symptoms must be present for the majority of the day, almost daily, for at least two weeks. Common depressive disorders include:
- Major depressive disorder
- Postpartum depression
- Bipolar disorder (which also includes episodes of mania)
Other mental health disorders include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Risk Factors for Mental Health Disorders
Anyone can develop a mental health disorder. However, researchers have found that certain risk factors can make you more vulnerable, including:
- Experiencing adverse life events such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Genetics and other biological factors such as having a blood relative with a mental illness
- Using drugs or alcohol
- Having a chronic medical condition such as chronic pain or cancer
- Chemical imbalances in the brain
- Stressful home environment
What Are Emotional Support Animals?
Emotional support animals (ESAs) don’t solely refer to dogs. Any domestic pet can be considered an emotional support animal. ESAs don’t have to be certified to be considered an ESA. However, they do have to provide some type of service that is beneficial to their owner. By definition, an emotional support animal is an animal that is more than a pet. It provides emotional support or completes tasks that help reduce one or more symptoms of a person’s physical or emotional disability.
The Benefits of Emotional Support Animals
More information is needed to determine the vast benefits that ESAs can provide. However, current research demonstrates significant benefits from interacting with animals. A major benefit of having an animal, such as a dog, is it forces you to be active and to get outside in nature. By walking the dog, you are moving your body and as we know, regular exercise has extensive mental and physical health benefits. Additionally, studies show that being in nature has major benefits on your overall health and wellness and can improve your sleep, mental health, and blood pressure levels.
ESAs, specifically dogs, have been shown to improve the mental health and overall well-being of people of all ages. For example, research has shown that dogs in the classroom can improve the focus of students in the classroom who experience ADHD. Additionally, a study showed that students who read to animals displayed better behavior in volunteering, sharing, and cooperation than students who read to puppets that look like dogs. Additionally, animals have been shown to improve anxiety levels in children with autism. Students who played with guinea pigs for 10 minutes had better social interactions and reduced anxiety levels than children who did not.
The benefits of animals on our well-being may be surprising. For example, a research study showed that teenagers with diabetes who took care of fish helped in managing the symptoms of their diabetes. This is believed to be a result of the discipline that comes with taking care of fish. The teens were more disciplined in checking their blood sugar.
Animals can also be a source of support and comfort. Animals provide unconditional love and positive regard to the people in their lives. Animals have been shown to improve the mindfulness (attention, awareness, compassion) of patients with terminal illnesses. This has helped decrease anxiety and stress levels in patients. Interacting with animals has been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, studies show that interacting with animals decreases blood pressure, the stress hormone cortisol, and feelings of isolation and loneliness.
When Emotional Support Animals May Not Be Appropriate
Not everyone can benefit from interacting with ESAs. For example, allergies may be triggered by animals that are not hypoallergenic. Studies have shown that exposure to animals at a young age can actually trigger asthma and allergy symptoms, so it’s important to talk to your doctor if you are considering adding an ESA to your life.
Another element that needs to be considered when incorporating ESAs is the possibility of spreading germs to individuals. More research is needed to determine whether or not bringing animals to hospitals to comfort individuals spreads germs that can be detrimental to the health of patients. Furthermore, animals can behave in unintended ways and cause harm to individuals through biting and scratching.
Additional Ways to Treat Mental Health Disorders
Only a mental health or medical professional can diagnose a mental health disorder. Emotional support animals are just one element in treating mental illness and should not be considered the primary (or only) method of treatment. Depending on factors unique to you such as your age, family history, medical history, and symptoms, your treatment plan can include a variety of interventions that can consist of:
- Medication: Prescribed by a doctor and can include anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.
- Individual psychotherapy: A safe place to process past traumas and learn/improve coping skills.
- Group therapy: An environment to learn and connect with others.
- Complimentary health treatments: Supplements, yoga, and other interventions.
- Lifestyle changes: Changes in diet, incorporation of exercise, and other lifestyle changes can improve mood and mental health.
How to Get Help
Unfortunately, the majority of people who suffer from a mental health disorder do not receive treatment. This is evidenced by the fact that among the 57.8 million adults who had a mental health disorder in 2021, only 26.5 million (47.2%) obtained mental health treatment that year. Remember that mental illness is treatable.
If you think you may be struggling with a mental illness, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help you find a mental health professional suitable to you and your needs. Your doctor may also prescribe you medication to help improve your mental health symptoms. If medication is part of your treatment plan, ScriptSave WellRx can help you save money on your prescription medications. Most people who use the free prescription savings card save around 65% although some may save up to 80%.
Jacquelyn Buffo began writing at the age of 10 when she won a county-wide essay contest explaining why her mother is worth her weight in gold. Since that time, she has written for several newspapers and a health and wellness blog. Her education and experience is in mental health and addiction. She is a licensed counselor and currently provides therapeutic services on an outpatient basis. Her counseling and substance abuse experience includes inpatient residential, in-home, and early recovery counseling. She is a certified addiction specialist and is working on obtaining her certification in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. She also specializes in working with pregnant and post-partum women and has received advanced training on women's health.
- The World Health Organization. (2022). Mental disorders.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2023). Mental Illness.
- American Counseling Association. (2015). Confirming the benefits of emotional support animals.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). The power of pets: Health benefits of human-animal interactions.
- DeVille, N.V. et al. (2021). Associations between nature exposure and health: A review of the evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(9), 4790.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Treatments.