Young Adults’ Experiences of Depression in the U.S.

Depression and pets

Pets are an important source of company, empathy, joy, humor and love for most of the young adults we interviewed. As Sierra Rose summarized, “animals are perfect. They love you no matter what. Like straight up everyone should own at least one animal.” Many people also spoke about the importance of being needed by their pets – “to have something to take care of,” as Colin put it, “instead of needing people to take care of me.” For some people, however, the responsibility of caring for a pet was too much during their current phase of life, and the anticipated loss of creatures with short life-spans could also be a source of sadness.

Being loved and accepted

Many people we spoke to said their pets’ unconditional love and acceptance was “a huge factor in life” – a sure way, as Devin put it, to “bring up my spirit… and put a smile on my face.” Several people named cats or dogs as their “closest friends” growing up. Kate described her cat, who has moved with her a number of times, as “one of the consistent things in my life,” adding “… even though I don't have anybody to listen or hug, I have this one.” Sara said her cat would sleep with her, and she would confide in him because he couldn’t and “… wouldn’t tell anything to anyone.” 

Some people said that when they are depressed, the comfort of being with their pets can make it even harder to get out of bed, out of the house, or into the company of other people. Others said their pets motivated them to get outside, by making that experience more joyful.
The capacity of dogs and cats to empathize, and to accept unconditionally, was considered a wondrous gift by most people. As Leanna summarized, “they can tell how you’re feeling and they want to help and it’s really nice.” A number of people described how their cat or dog comes to sit on their lap, lick their leg, or be nearby when they are depressed, always doing “something to get you out of that mood because they can sense it." Casey said when he is depressed he doesn’t want to be touched, even by a dog or cat.  

Numerous people said the non-judgmental presence of animals offers relief from the pain of depression-related low self-esteem and self-negation. As Sara put it, animals “don’t talk back and they don’t judge me.” James said a pet “ain’t going to judge you... [and] will help you with your depression.”
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Being needed

Feeling capable of caring for another creature, and responsible for its well-being, was described as intensely meaningful by a number of people. Colin recounted the benefits to him of taking care of a baby turtle, realizing that “its life [is] in my hands, really” and having the satisfaction of feeding it and watching it grow. Kate said her pet is “a responsibility,” but “nobody else would take care of him the way I do.” Several people described their pets as “pretty much the only thing holding me there” in their darkest moments, including when contemplating suicide.
For other people we interviewed, the benefits of having a pet needed to be weighed carefully against the responsibility. Jeremy said he really wants a dog, but “it’s a little much like to take care of, it’s like a child…,” so he is not yet ready to make that commitment. Jackson is delighted that other people in the house where he lives have a cat, so he can enjoy it without having more personal responsibility than makes sense in his current situation.
Having fun

Many people we spoke to stressed the importance of fun, laughter, humor and joy as effective ways to counteract the weight of depression – and for some, animals are a direct route to having these positive feelings. As Ryan put it, pets “always just bring joy” and “make you feel happy when you didn’t think you could.” Colin said every day he can’t wait to go visit a cat he knows. Shayne noted that her cats are “super funny… like my little babies that are fuzzy and walk on four legs.”
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Sierra Rose notes that pets are not only fun in their own right, but also make it more comfortable to socialize when she is depressed because “if there’s ever a lull in conversation then we can be like ‘Oh, look at what my cats are doing, they’re being adorable.”

Being healed

Several people described their pets as a therapeutic necessity for coping with their mental health issues and making it through each day. Research links* pets to a variety of health and mental health benefits, though studies of pets and young adults with depression remain scarce. Two people said they had successfully petitioned their landlords to certify their dogs, cats or rabbits as “companion animals” approved to live with them even in housing that generally does not permit pets; federal law gives “emotional support” animals this special status*1 if the need is verified by a clinician. A third person talked about how it remains too difficult to get pets approved as therapy animals.Many people said coming to terms with both their darker and lighter moods was an essential step in healing. Shayne’s cats offered her one way to do this.
See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘Depression and healing’, and ‘How depression feels’.


References
*“Can Pets Help Keep You Healthy? Exploring the Human-Animal Bond”. NIH: News in Health, February 2009, Web. 7 February 2016. 

*1Chandler, Cynthia. “Confirming The Benefits of Emotional Support Animals”. Counseling Today Online, 20 April 2015, Web. 7 February 2016. 

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