Companion Animals And Suicide Prevention: A First Look
Research into how companion animals influence the health and well-being of older adults is abundant, even if some of the results we see are very much up for debate. Recent reviews identify both positive and negative effects, with many showing that companion animals may have an impressive capacity for improving older persons’ psychological, social, and emotional states on the upside. Caring for animals is said to modulate negative life experiences and soften their impacts. As noted by the authors of this study, researchers have already revealed that companion animals can play a vital helping role in recovery from suicide attempts in some older people, and potentially protect abused women and homeless people from succumbing to suicide. This study, broadly, sought to understand the effect that companion animals can have in preventing suicidal behavior in older people.
Despite the fact that suicide rates are decreasing worldwide, the risk of suicide by older people remains the highest, increasing exponentially after people reach 60. The suffering involved in the life of a person who has committed suicide can be immense, as generally, such a person represents an estimated 20 non-fatal attempts. The indirect effects are also higher than thought previously. Recent studies show that the ripple effect of suicide may affect an average of 135 people, compared to the lower estimate of six people found in earlier research. People affected can include families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and first responders – many of whom report experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It is therefore natural that suicide in older people calls for urgent and effective preventive measures. Identifying protective factors is of utmost importance, as first attempts are more frequently fatal in older people.
While studying the effects companion animals have on the health of the elderly, the team of Australian researchers who conducted this review stumbled upon an interesting finding — the potentially life-saving nature of the cross-species relationships. The authors note that although Australia has one of the highest average life expectancies, high suicide rates among older people call the quality of those extended years into question. Coming back to previous findings, older animal caretakers seem less likely to decline psychologically and are generally more able to overcome such hurdles. Meanwhile, negative aspects of being an older companion animal guardian include the grief experienced after an animal dies and increased responsibilities that may lead to a higher risk of falls and neglect of self-care.
But what is it that makes relationships with non-human others potentially protective? It turns out that loneliness might be at the crux of the issue. This negative state of being has been linked to suicide risk in older persons. Research has shown that loneliness reduces life expectancy, while the efficacy of artificially created social support networks pales in comparison to that of naturally occurring social groups. This is where companion animals, acting as family members and company, may counter the loneliness experienced by some of the most vulnerable. When engaging with socially isolated or excluded people, animals are seen to provide comfort, companionship, and a sense of worth, counteracting the often reported feelings of uselessness and being a burden. This study varies from others investigating cross-species relationships in that it attempts to reveal the older people’s own self-identified understandings of health linked to companion animals.
Here, the researchers interviewed 35 participants, 59 to 83 years of age. The transcribed interviews were reviewed closely for indications of suicidality, including reports of acute psychic trauma, distress, and overt discussion of life-ending ideas or actions. Despite the fact that the survey did not mention or imply the topic of suicide itself, more than a third of the respondents indicated some connection between their companion animals and ending their own lives. In summary, the inter-related themes discussed were:
- Function: active (e.g. grooming, feeding) and passive (e.g. researching their needs online) directness of animal engagement with a human guardian.
- Presence: the mere existence of the animal close-by and the sense that they are “with” you.
- Known-ness: feeling “known” as an individual by the animal.
- Reciprocity: a sense of a mutual, reciprocal relationship.
Throughout the interviewing process, the researchers noticed that, for some people, the opportunity to talk about how their pets affect their health enabled them to discuss something enormously significant in their lives. The topic could be recognized in health care responses in the future, due to its subjective importance and potential therapeutic value. The findings here support the need for person-centered approaches, where people at risk of suicide are heard — what they see as significant in terms of their level of risk, potential for self-harm, and protective factors are considered.
While animals may be able to stay with a person far more consistently than humans can, especially at night, a time of particular vulnerability, the potential loss of an animal may add to already present stressors. In cases of strong bonds, the loss of a companion animal would equate to the loss of effective mental health support.
Of course, the findings of this small, qualitative study need to be validated, and until then, applied with caution. However, it does shed new light on the potential that our cross-species relationships hold. Animal advocates will recognize the possibility to help people in need, however, animal well-being also should be taken into account, where adequate care needs to be ensured in households of people at risk for self-harm or suicide. Potential synergies, however, do come to mind: aged housing and care services could include models of engagement such as animal sitting, fostering, or animal care support, so that both humans and companion animals could benefit from the potential positive effects these mutual relationships promise.