Inspired by an article I read speaking about the benefits of pets to depressed people, I wanted to write a little bit about the therapeutic value of caring for other living things both as an aid to preventing and treating mental disturbance, particularly but not exclusively depression.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.”
Anonymous, but often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi
First of all, my strong personal belief is that we are supposed to take care of other living things. For me this is a natural expression of being human. And so I feel a little sad in suggesting this as a remedy for our misery. I think if our culture retained the fundamental principle and natural inclination to caring for other living beings then it wouldn’t be in such a mess. That said, we can, as free-thinking individuals, go against cultural trends and change our world by starting to re-engage in behaviours that are, in fact, part of our normal human nature. And in so doing, heal our world a little, and heal ourselves in the process.
There have been numerous studies and much anecdotal evidence to confirm the notion that owning a cat or a dog can have a positive effect on the recovery from depression. This may be common sense to some of us already. The act of ‘taking care of’ another living creature or even plants is in its essence a therapeutic act. If you have a genuine psychotherapist for example, then they will without a doubt experience real caring towards you, and the bond that is formed between patient and therapist – when authentic – is in large part where much of the therapeutic value comes from.
Similarly, a genuine loving bond between a parent and child both ensures the child can develop in a healthy way, and the parent also benefits because their emotions and mind are oriented in a therapeutically valuable way. By contrast, the reverse of this situation: an absence of loving contact between parent and child has been well established as a marker for the development of mental health problems later on in life. Indeed, a 13th century barbaric experiment conducted by German King Frederik the second, studied the effects upon infants of having no physical or verbal contact. The infants were given the appropriate food and warmth, but refused any signs of love. The result was all of the studied children died due to being denied love.
Beginning to care for someone or something requires a shift in our consciousness that is valuable to both giver and receiver. This shift is the essence of loving kindness in the major religions and perhaps best known in the west via Christianity and Buddhism. It forms part of the doctrine in these spiritual teachings for good reason: because it works.
“May all beings be well and safe, may they be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be, whether moving or standing still, without exception, whether large, great, middling, or small, whether tiny or substantial,
Whether seen or unseen, whether living near or far,
Born or unborn; may all beings be happy.
Let none deceive or despise another anywhere. Let none wish harm to another, in anger or in hate.”
From the Pali Metta Sutta
And where loving kindness towards other people feels difficult, or complicated by the complexities of human interaction and our own pain memories, in a fragile state loving kindness towards a plant, an insect or an animal is a lot easier.
I learned a long time ago that any low mood or depression I might be feeling or negative thinking was easily alleviated if not cured by being kind towards someone or something. It immediately helps you shift mental gears into a much better, self-healing place. As such I now have a daily routine of looking after the wildlife in our garden: the plants, insects, birds and animals. It’s part of my daily ‘therapy’ and has resulted in the animals and birds knowing me as a benign presence rather than a potential threat. The pigeons, sparrows, robins, and squirrels come around whenever I go outside! This is heart-warming, but it can also cost you a fortune if you aren’t careful…On a serious note, it’s also wise not to create too much of a dependency in wildlife by, for example, over-feeding or feeding too often. Animals still need to find their own food and they can end up hanging around waiting to be fed rather than foraging for themselves. So, establishing a balance between helping them avoid starvation and respecting their independent wildness is key.
Regularly we rescue bees from our garden path. They often become exhausted and unable to find enough flowers to feed on, especially when it gets cold. Or they become disoriented by microwave radio signals from wifi and mobile phone towers. A little sugar syrup (saturated sugar solution) on the end of a finger does wonders and you can help bees recover quite easily with this method (they won’t sting you unless you try to kill them because when a bee stings it dies). Bees are some of the most docile, harmless creatures around if you don’t try to hurt them.
Hedgehogs are in severe decline in the UK, so we decided to do what we could and started by building a hedgehog box out of plywood. Within two weeks we had a hedgehog move in! He stayed for the winter but we haven’t seen him around for a while. Small cat biscuits and dog food are suitable foods for hedgehogs and a fresh water supply (but not milk). Through the winter hedgehogs hibernate but wake up several times when hungry, so having some food close by can be a good way to help them survive through the winter months when food is scarce.
Bird feeders and squirrel feeders not only help our fellow creatures survive, they bring life into your garden and show you that you can make a difference, helping to reverse the destruction that is taking place to the environment and wildlife around the globe. The pay-off for you is that you do something very valuable for your soul and can begin to see how you can apply your power to making changes in the world, however small they may be.
When I was in Malaysia attempting to recover from M.E. I rescued a dog. I was pretty unwell a lot of the time: exhausted, with migraine headaches and chronic joint and muscle pain and associated depression. I thought my career had come to an end because of this illness and I was miserable.
I saw Brim standing out in the middle of the road in the midday sun and 40 degree heat. He was swaying from side to side, ready to collapse. So I went out to have a look. I expected him to run away or snarl as I approached, but he didn’t. He just stood there looking as exhausted as I felt.
Dogs and cats in Malaysia are treated very badly and you will typically see stray dogs and cats wandering around the streets in terrible states of health with broken tails and legs, preventable diseases and infected wounds. I routinely witnessed school children throwing stones at dogs that were doing them no harm whatsoever. In Asia, cruelty towards animals exists on epidemic proportions. Dogs that aren’t thrown into the street to survive are usually kept for securing property: seen purely in terms of their ability to guard a house, and as such are confined twenty four hours a day, often locked in cages or fenced gardens on a permanent basis. They become mentally disturbed and bark incessantly from the torments of their confinement.
Brim was in an awful state. His skin was cracked and bleeding due to being infested with mange, he had a leg ulcer and an abscess on one side of his head that turned out to be infested with maggots. He was starved and probably had only a day or two left to live in the blazing heat. I immediately fed him some raw eggs, took him in and rode the only transport I had – an old bicycle – three or four miles to the nearest vet. I managed to convince the vet to give me medications and an injection I could administer to Brim to clear up the mange.
I named him ‘Brim’ as it’s short for ‘Brimstone’, the old name for the sulphur powder I used to use on his skin to help it heal.
Within just a few weeks Brim had made an amazing recovery and was full of what can only be described as joy. He would run and jump about and remained loyal for the few months I stayed in Malaysia. I managed to find him a home with a Christian family who already kept two dogs of their own. But it was quite upsetting to leave him behind…
Clearly, you don’t need to own a dog or cat to experience the benefits to your mental health of genuinely taking care of a living thing. It is undoubtedly therapeutic because it allows us to shift our minds and awareness away from our own suffering, to the needs and struggles of another being.
Such a shift takes us out of ourselves and helps us strengthen and reinforce the neural pathways in our brains concerned with the development of healthier thought patterns and emotional states. This isn’t about ignoring or minimising your problems or pain. It’s about transcending some of it and using some of your day and energy that you might use stressing or feeling awful by engaging in a healing process instead of pure suffering, worry, anxiety, or hopelessness. It is an act of kindness and healing towards yourself and the world around you.
This is available to you now. You need only give it a try…