Benji is a two-year-old Havanese. Photo: Sherina Harris

Students use pets in struggle for better mental health

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By Sherina Harris

During one of her most significant depressive episodes, Hiranniya Yogaratnarajah got on a bus on a rainy day and rode for two hours to pick up a cat she’d found on Kijiji. She was 16, volunteering at a high school for her co-op placement, and felt alone at home because of her parents’ work schedule. She brought the black cat home and hid her in a suitcase in her room, coughing to mask the meows anytime her parents entered her room.

“All I kept thinking about was, ‘I just want to have someone with me,’ and I would just hold onto my cat, and it would make me feel better,” she says.

Yogaratnarajah isn’t alone in realizing that her cat positively impacted her mental health. Pets provide a calming support and can reduce feelings of isolation, a 2018 review conducted by universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Southampton suggest. The review explores the relationship between pets and mental health. It was indicated that pets promote emotional stability through helping people regulate feelings, manage stress and cope with difficult life events.

Amigo is a nine-year-old Cardigan Welsh Corgi. Photo: Sherina Harris

During winter exams last year, third-year social work student Sadia Ibrahim says she felt a sudden onset of anxiety. When she couldn’t sleep during that period, she’d get up and look for her orange and white tabby. Sometimes he was awake or sleeping on a couch downstairs. Either way, she’d pick him up and hold him closely, sometimes only for a few seconds.

“After that I’d feel much better. It actually helped me go to sleep after,” she says. Although that period of anxiety has since passed, Ibrahim says spending time with her cat still helps her deal with stress.

Spending time with animals to relieve stress can be achieved even without having a pet. Ryerson’s Therapy Dogs program has been running since 2014. The program, which takes place every Wednesday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in the Student Learning Centre, is run in partnership with St. John Ambulance therapy dogs. Payton Flood, an assistant with the program, says students can be so emotional seeing the dogs that they cry.

“You actually hear them say, ‘I’m crying because I’m so happy, this is so amazing, I feel so much better,’” Flood says.

 

Although that period of anxiety has since passed, Ibrahim says spending time with her cat still helps her deal with stress

 

As students enter and leave the program, they’re encouraged to fill out a postcard by circling emojis depicting how they’re feeling. Over 1,000 students took part in the program last year, and 96 per cent of students indicated that they felt positive, excited or relieved, according to Cassie Anton, a leadership development facilitator in the Student Life department.

Scarlett spots the camera and smiles. Photo: Sherina Harris

Although the program primarily serves as a way for students to practice self-care by stepping away from a stressful day and simply petting or watching the dogs, it also creates a sense of a supportive, inclusive community.

“It’s not just the dogs and petting the dogs,” Anton says. “There’s also this cool ambiance and this sense of joy with everyone else in the room being happy.”

Pets have also been proven to help those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Research at the University of California at Davis found that Alzheimer’s patients who owned a cat or a dog suffered from less anxiety and stress.

 

“It’s not just the dogs and petting the dogs,” Anton says. “There’s also this cool ambiance and this sense
of joy with everyone else in the room being happy”

 

Having a pet, such as a dog, can also add structure and routine to your lifestyle. Dog owners may find themselves getting more daily exercise, leading to longer life expentancies for the future.
Since buying her first cat six years ago, Yogaratnarajah, now a second-year business technology management student, has bought two more. This time, she got approval from her parents.

“I didn’t think about how it made me feel until a few years later I was like, ‘I’m actually so grateful for this cat for being in my life’ because who knows how many suicidal thoughts I would have had… if I didn’t have someone?”

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