Americas Mental Health Crisis (And How Animals Can Help)
Revealing statistics from The National Alliance on Mental Illness show that approximately one in four adults in the United States will suffer from a mental or emotional illness in a given year.
But America’s mental health crisis is worse than you might think.
A recent report from the Child Mind Institute states that the most common childhood diseases in this country are mental health disorders and the same report estimates that 17.1 million children in the U.S. have or have had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder as of 2015.
Although almost 50% of American youth have a diagnosable mental illness, only 7.4% will receive any form of mental health care in a given year.
It’s also important to note that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24. Worse yet, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-24, and 90% of those who commit suicide had an underlying mental illness.
With a problem so prevalent, it’s apparent that our mental health care system is fundamentally flawed and fragmented, and for a country that fancies itself the greatest nation in the world, shouldn’t our methods of treating patients with mental health issues be nothing shy of exemplary?
Unfortunately for the millions of Americans suffering today, it’s anything but.
Barriers to Care
The United States is in the middle of a mental health crisis, with millions suffering from anxiety, stress, social phobias, eating disorders, depression, PTSD and more.
Statistically speaking, most people who suffer from these disorders never seek treatment of any kind, and what’s worse is that those who do often struggle to get the support and care they desperately need.
Many people do not have medical insurance or a plan that covers mental health care.
Accessibility can be a serious issue for people living in more rural areas, as the treatment they need might be physically too far away and too expense for them to get there.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that despite the fact the we’ve come leaps and bounds in terms of people being able to talk freely about mental health issues, there’s still a very prevalent negative stigma. Many people simply don’t feel able or willing to open up and admit they need professional help.
Sadly, access to mental health benefits is severely lacking when compared to the current demand and dire need for such care, and widespread mental and emotional disorders, most of which remain undiagnosed or untreated, can have drastic affects on all parts of our society.
Clearly, something must be done.
Established Mental Health Treatment Methods
Let’s look at the range of options currently available for patients who need help with mental or emotional disabilities:
Therapy is an all-encompassing term that can actually be used to cover a wide range of treatment, though in this case ‘talking therapies’ are the most common forms of care for mental and emotional health.
Depending on the issue, people can talk to a psychologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, counselor, etc… Through this interaction with a mental health professional, patients are helped to come to terms with their symptoms and feelings, and are taught to explore new ways of coping with difficult situations.
Therapy is a valuable tool in helping with specific issues, such as bereavement or relationship breakdowns, that can cause a short term requirement for support, and complementary/holistic therapies such as meditation and acupuncture, are often used alongside traditional treatments in order to help with overall physical and emotional well-being.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional Support Animals are beneficial to people with mental and emotional disabilities in a similar way that service animals help those with physical disabilities.
An Emotional Support Animal, or ESA, is typically a dog or cat that provides a person who suffers from a mental or emotional disability with therapeutic benefits. ESAs do so by means of forming a close bond and providing emotional comfort and support which generally helps the person live their day-to-day life.
An ESA is more than just a pet, and the owner needs to have a diagnosed and verifiable mental or emotional disability in order to qualify for the legal protections afforded to owners of emotional support animals.
To qualify for an Emotional Support Animal, the owner must have a letter from a mental health professional that confirms the diagnosis of the patient and also confirms that the animal provides emotional support, thus alleviating the owner’s symptoms and benefiting their mental health.
You can learn more about Emotional Support Animals here.
Pharmaceuticals, such as psychotropic medications, anti-depressants, mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics, among others, work to alter the chemicals in a patient’s brain that have an effect on a person’s behavior and mood.
While these medications can be an effective tool in ameliorating mental health issues, as we’ll discuss later on, mental health is an extremely complex matter and simply writing a prescription is often the equivalent to putting a tiny band aid on a gaping wound.
The most common form of psychotropic medication is anti-depressants, and the most popular are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor anti-depressants (SSRIs). The most well-known SSRI is probably Prozac (fluoxetine).
Pharmaceuticals are often regarded as the easy answer, or hailed as a one-size-fits-all solution, but with their use comes the possibility of some extremely serious side-effects.
Are Pills the Answer to Mental Health Issues?
With pills such as anti-depressants being one of the most common forms of mental health care (when people can access it that is), let’s look at the benefits, as well as the drawbacks of their use.
The Benefits of Pills
Although they can be seen as ‘the easy option’, and an excuse for individuals to ignore the reasons behind their mental health troubles, prescription medication can be immensely helpful in cases where someone requires that little bit of extra support.
While used in conjunction with other types of therapies that help the individual to deal with the crux of their mental health problems, taking medication can keep them on a level that helps them do just that, as well as simply getting them out if bed in the morning in some cases.
In a nutshell, we know that pills work, but are they the best answer?
The Dangers of Pills
We’ve already said that ‘they work’, but the truth can be more complicated than that.
The better question is, do they work for that person? Using medication to control mental health issues can often be a case of trial and error, and it can take a long time to find the right drug, or even the right combination of drugs, that suit someone’s individual needs and condition(s).
Not only that, but pills rarely start working straight away. It’s usually a matter of weeks or months before the user starts to see any benefit, so it can take a long time to find out whether or not that particular drug is suitable.
Side effects range from the unpleasant (stomach problems, headaches, weight gain or loss, acne, sexual dysfunction and more) to the severe (mania, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, severe personality changes, homicidal tendencies and more).
Even though some side effects are rare, some are extremely common, and there’s always the risk of serious side effects.
Other concerns with prescription medication include the fact that ceasing many types of medications can cause nasty withdrawal symptoms if not done slowly and correctly, and also the fact that people taking the pills often build up a tolerance (if they stop working for them, where do they go from there?), which can fuel chemical dependency.
Pets as Therapy
With the obvious need for Emotional Support Animals in the United States, it’s interesting to look at exactly what the health benefits and effectiveness of using pets for treatment are.
The Benefits of ESAs
The benefits of using pets for therapy (most commonly dogs or cats) are in fact numerous:
A 2002 study¹ in the United Kingdom examined pet ownership and the way that it improves the health of owners. The report estimated that pet ownership saves their National Health Service (the free for everyone health care system in the UK) approximately £600 million (over $900 million) every year.
Pets are a great way of encouraging physical activity in their owners, and we know that exercise boosts endorphins that improve mental health. While dogs are obviously ideal for this, needing regular walks themselves, even cats can increase their owner’s activity levels and overall fitness by needing playtime, and some of the best cat toys (fishing rod style toys, for example) require their owner’s participation too.
It’s not only physical benefits, which is why Emotional Support Animals are so important to many people with mental health challenges.
Animals have proven to be effective in helping individual who suffering from stress, depression, anxiety and another emotional issues. In fact, just being near a pet or stroking its fur is proven to reduce stress and lower blood pressure.
Owners’ social needs can be met too, with an animal giving them a reason to leave the house, either for walks or for routine veterinary care, when they might not otherwise want to see people. There are also other benefits of having an emotional support animal.
Of course there are also certain responsibilities that come with having a pet, so pet ownership might not be for everyone.
Things to Consider Before Getting an ESA
Even though an Emotional Support Animal is classified as more than just a pet, it still has the same financial and health needs that any normal pet would. This is why it’s very important to consider every aspect of pet ownership before making the decision.
The main factor is usually the financial commitment that comes with pets, particularly if someone is considering getting a new pet to be their Emotional Support Animal.
While adopting from a shelter will always be cheaper than buying a pedigree animal, there will still be a donation required to cover some of the shelter’s costs. All of the initial equipment will be needed, such as food and water bowls, beds, carrying cases, exercise equipment and more, plus potential owners need to budget for replacing these items as and when they wear out. There’s also food, regular veterinary care like check-ups and vaccinations, neutering if getting a kitten or a puppy, as well as any ad-hoc or emergency veterinary care in the future.
The personality of the animal in question also needs to be considered, as they all have different temperaments. Just as some animals aren’t suitable pets for certain people or situations, not all are suitable for becoming an Emotional Support Animal.
An individual looking for an Emotional Support Animal wouldn’t necessarily be aware of an animal’s temperament if they were planning to get a new pet specifically for being an ESA, rather than registering their existing pet as an Emotional Support Animal, in which case they would obviously be confident that their pet was suitable.
This is where adopting from shelters would be the best idea, because shelter staff would usually have a good handle on the animal’s temperament and know whether or not it would be suitable.
Another consideration is that the pet would need to suit the owner’s lifestyle.
Dogs of course need exercise and space, some more than others, and cats also need a certain amount of space – although vertical space suits cats very well so a huge house with a large garden isn’t necessary.
It’s not just the physical aspects of a person’s lifestyle though, pets are living creatures that need care and attention all the time, so the potential owner would need to be sure that they were physically and emotionally able to give their pet everything they need, and also accept full responsibility for the care of that animal.
While rented accommodation can be a barrier to owning pets in other circumstances, it can be very different if the pet in question is an Emotional Support Animal.
The Fair Housing Amendments Act states that “If a person is physically impaired (disabled) and has an individually trained service dog to perform a major life task that the person has trouble performing for him or herself (or an emotional support animal prescribed by a licensed mental health professional), landlords/property managers are required to make a reasonable accommodation to their policies and allow the tenant to have an emotional support animal. This includes species, breed, and weight policies.”
Pets vs. Pills: The Bottom Line
When looking at the risks and benefits of psychotropic medication and Emotional Support Animals to people who suffer from mental health issues, nothing is cut and dried.
Anti-depressants and other types of pills used for mental health care can be very effective, and in some cases they are the only form of treatment available for a particular condition.
However, the risk of horrific side effects and the medication’s sluggishness when it comes to actually making a verifiable difference to someone’s condition, make pills a less attractive option.
While pets require a considerable emotional and financial commitment that not everyone is able to meet, the only “risk” to having an Emotional Support Animal is that it might not be able to provide complete mental health care on its own.
With the extreme prevalence of mental and emotional disabilities in the United States, it’s easy to say that our country is experiencing a mental health crisis.
Although it’s great that we have so many options for treatment and support, patients should still discuss all available treatment options, as well as their risks and benefits, with a licensed mental health practitioner.
If you’re interested in getting a recommendation for an Emotional Support Animal, or you just want to see if you qualify, click here to take your free 5-minute screening.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed herein should not be so construed or used as medical advice or to replace the services of a licensed, trained physician or other health professional.
¹Phillips C (2002) Does Pet Ownership Reduce the Number of GP Consultations? What Pets Can Do for Patients. Presented at Pets are Good for People, Meeting of the Comparative Medicine Section, Royal Society of Medicine. January 21. RSM, London.