Despite evidence that connecting people to relevant wellbeing-related resources brings therapeutic benefit, there is limited understanding, in the context of mental health recovery, of the potential value and contribution of pet ownership to personal support networks for self-management. This study aimed to explore the role of pets in the support and management activities in the personal networks of people with long-term mental health problems.
Semi-structured interviews centred on ‘ego’ network mapping were conducted in two locations (in the North West and in the South of England) with 54 participants with a diagnosis of a long-term mental health problem. Interviews explored the day-to-day experience of living with a mental illness, informed by the notion of illness work undertaken by social network members within personal networks. Narratives were elicited that explored the relationship, value, utility and meaning of pets in the context of the provision of social support and management provided by other network members. Interviews were recorded, then transcribed verbatim before being analysed using a framework analysis.
The majority of pets were placed in the central, most valued circle of support within the network diagrams. Pets were implicated in relational work through the provision of secure and intimate relationships not available elsewhere. Pets constituted a valuable source of illness work in managing feelings through distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences, and provided a form of encouragement for activity. Pets were of enhanced salience where relationships with other network members were limited or difficult. Despite these benefits, pets were unanimously neither considered nor incorporated into individual mental health care plans.
Drawing on a conceptual framework built on Corbin and Strauss’s notion of illness ‘work’ and notions of a personal workforce of support undertaken within whole networks of individuals, this study contributes to our understanding of the role of pets in the daily management of long-term mental health problems. Pets should be considered a main rather than a marginal source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems, and this has implications for the planning and delivery of mental health services.
Christopher C Charles
|Publication Title||BMC Psychology|