Mental Health: The Next Battlefront
In the lead up to veteran’s day 2023, PAWS/LA has taken a deep dive into the data surrounding mental health in military veterans and the abundant evidence suggesting service animals and mental wellness are inextricably linked.
Studies show that military veterans experience mental health difficulties at a significantly higher rate than those in the general population. The trauma of battlefield experiences, and the difficulties of reintegrating into civilian life are just two of the stressors that can negatively impact a veteran’s psychology. Add these to the day-by-day challenges that the average civilian faces—social, economic, political—and you have a fertile environment for psychological disorders to develop and evolve. Some experts call mental health “another battlefront” for many who have served in the army.
While any response to a mental health crisis must be nuanced and multi-faceted, depending to a large degree on the individual and their specific experiences, an overwhelming majority of experts agree that service animals—emotional support pets—can prove a powerful tool in helping struggling veterans. These animals might belong to the affected individual and constitute a constant feature of their domestic environment; or they may be temporarily available at a rehabilitation or care facility, utilized by therapists or counselors on a session-by-session basis as part of a structured therapeutic approach. However the animal appears in the veteran’s life, they are likely to have a positive impact.
Again, it is important to understand the limitations of any conclusions drawn from combined statistical analysis, with conclusions converging and diverging around varying methodologies and modalities. However, studies generally suggest the following benefits as emerging from pet-assisted therapies.
Reduced Symptoms of PTSD
According to the National Center for PTSD, a government agency, 7% of all veterans will suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at some point in their life. The effects of PTSD can be debilitating, negatively impacting all aspects of the individual’s life, from job performance and social functioning to the relationship they have with their immediate family members. PTSD is strongly linked to substance abuse disorders and other compulsive behaviors. While it is dangerous to make specific assumptions based on a PTSD diagnosis alone, it is generally safe to conclude that the disorder poses a significant barrier to enjoying an elevated quality of life.
Service animals can help mitigate these negative effects. According to a study published in the "Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology," veterans with PTSD who had a service dog showed a significant reduction in symptoms such as nightmares, night sweats, hallucinatory flashbacks and hypersensitivity to light and sound. According to researchers, these specific symptomatic improvements amounted to an overall decrease in the severity of the disorder and a general weakening of entrenched symptom clusters. While this study considered dogs specifically, scientists believe that other animals provide essentially the same support functions: companionship, socialization, a sense of accountability and purpose.
Lowered Anxiety and Depression
Depression and anxiety are common forms of mental disorder, which often occur together, forming a particularly potent pathology. Some experts argue that both have reached epidemic levels in the modern world, measured at rates previously unheard of, especially in a post-pandemic landscape. Others contest that such claims are overstatements emerging more from broadening awareness and reporting than from an increase in actual diagnoses. Whatever the case, depression and anxiety are widespread, potentially debilitating conditions that lower the quality of the sufferer’s life and cost the economy billions each year.
Anxiety tends to afflict the sufferer with chronic feelings of fear and dread, sometimes at levels intense enough to cause physical reactions such as shortness of breath or heart palpitations. Depression has a more sedative effect, leading to suppressed motor functioning and dramatically decreased energy levels (fatigue). Depression also attacks the individual’s sense of self-worth and saps at their motivation. At severe levels, both conditions can completely incapacitate the individual, making it hard for them to leave their beds.
Research shows that depression is responsible for up to 9% of all ambulatory military health network appointments, while 15% of veterans report anxiety symptoms. As with PTSD, animal assisted therapy can reduce these symptoms for much the same reasons--a psychosocial combination of behavioral adjustment, existential realignment, and physiological change, the latter occurring as interactions with the animals reduce cortisol levels and increase oxytocin.
Decreased Medication Dependency
As you would expect, a reduction of symptoms through animal assisted therapy may positively impact the individual’s overall treatment plan, leading to a decrease in the need for medication. While psych meds have improved dramatically over the last fifty years, they still come with certain side effects (not to mention the financial strain of paying for a psychiatrist and covering co-payments). Even the most lightweight medications can cause weight gain or insomnia; and heavy-duty options such as Lithium, or any drug from the family of anti-psychotics can make an individual feel numb or ‘zombie-like’. Counterintuitively, the short-term side effects of some drugs include an increase in the symptoms they are supposed to be relieving.
If companionship and emotional support potentially lower a reliance on pharmaceutical interventions for mental health conditions, they become particularly valuable assets in any comprehensive treatment plan. Note that the word here is lower. A service animal is rarely a full substitute for psychiatric medication, especially if the individual’s condition is especially severe. It is extremely dangerous to change medications abruptly and without doctor supervision.
Reduced Risk of Suicide
Depression, anxiety, and PTSD can become terminal conditions if they factor into an individual’s decision to commit suicide. Military veterans are 1.5 times more likely to take their own lives as members of the general population, and while the precise cause for each individual’s decision is impossible to determine, the link between self-harm and mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, is indisputable. Simply by reducing the symptoms of mental health conditions, service animals constitute a valuable suicide prevention tool. But on a more abstract level, pet ownership almost certainly strengthens an individual’s existential resolve. An animal provides a reason to live and something to fight for, even when its owner is at their lowest ebb. At PAWS/LA we can cite hundreds of clients who claim their animal is the only thing keeping them going.
Decreased Hospitalization rates
Veterans with service dogs often experience fewer hospitalizations related to their mental health conditions. The presence of a service dog can help manage symptoms and provide comfort, reducing the need for emergency interventions. This allows the veteran to manage their mental health conditions without the need to take time off work. It also helps individuals avoid the financial stress of enormous medical bills.
Improved Quality of Life
By reducing the symptoms of mental health disorders alone, pet ownership and animal assisted therapy improve the individual’s quality of life. But even if you take serious mental health conditions out of the equation, animal owners, veterans or otherwise, generally poll as happier than those who live animal-free. They record improved social functioning and tend to live longer. Cardiovascular diseases are rarer (or at least less severe) in this population grouping, and they report greater interpersonal relationships and community participation as pets, especially dogs, can act as social catalysts. This alleviates feelings of isolation and improves overall mental well-being.
Finally, pet ownership has ben proven to confer tangible physical benefits. Studies have shown that interacting with pets, including therapy animals, can lead to a decrease in blood pressure and stress levels, two areas in which military veterans often struggle. The simple presence of an animal has been shown to have positive effects on human physiology by reducing the production of stress hormones. Animals can also aid in physical rehabilitation, helping with mobility and balance, and making it easier for their owners to engage in exercises and activities that promote physical health. For veterans returning from service with a chronic physical impairment, be it a missing limb or damaged hearing, adapting to this new reality becomes paramount in stabilizing their mental health. Animals keep us active and alert. We now know that the mind-body split is a myth. Those suffering physically suffer mentally and vice versa. True wellness covers every aspect of the individual’s life, calling for holistic approach.
Vets and pets: better together
Again, statistical analysis has clear limitations, and every individual is different; humans do not easily fit into methodological categories. Nonetheless, the abundance of evidence suggests that on some level, veterans benefit from owning a pet, or engaging in animal assisted therapy. At PAWS/LA we evidence of this every day, and it is the motivating force behind our PETSTRONG program. Our veterans have already given so much, often sacrificing their mental well-being to serve a cause greater than any one individual. It is only fair that we support them as participate in civilian life. Ultimately, a society is the sum total of its constituent parts—the individuals that comprise the social organism. Happy individuals make a happy society. Healthy soldiers make a safer nation. If animals can add to both health and happiness, we believe it benefits all of us to keep Vets and Pets together.
Our blog is managed by Ryan Hilary with additional contributions from the PAWS/LA team. Are you a member of our community and have a great idea for a post (or maybe want to write one yourself?). Reach out to Rhilary@pawsla.org.