Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 begins on Monday 8th May, and was created by the Mental Health Foundation in order to raise awareness of the silent battle so many of us face when it comes to mental health.
This year's theme is Surviving to Thriving, and at Mutts & Hounds we've been looking at the important role dogs play in helping people to cope with difficult times. Studies have shown that having a dog around the house can make difficult day to day tasks more managable and enjoyable, as well as providing motivation to get out and about, helping to build self-confidence and offering companionship free from judgement.
While the stigma surrounding mental health has begun to ease over recent years, it is still incredibly important that the conversation continues, and that those who are experiencing difficulties feel able to speak up and get the help they deserve. We've put together a list of the ways in which four-legged friends can help us and our loved ones, to show just how important they really are.
1. Getting you out of the house and moving
It is widely known that exercise is a fantastic way to improve mental health, but it can be difficult to find the motivation to get yourself going, as well as establishing a healthy routine. Enter the pups! From an early age all dogs benefit from daily walks, and depending on breed, the recommended length of walk tends to range from 30 to 60 minutes. As your fitness increases so will your dog's, and with them counting on you for their daily exercise, that half hour will easily build up over time, and soon you will look forward to getting up and out the house just to see the look on your pooch's face!
2. Offering a listening ear
Sometimes you just need to get some things off your chest, be it a bad day at work, an argument with a friend or relationship troubles, and it's not always helpful to have someone giving you their opinions and telling you how you could have acted differently. Often, a knowing look or a sympathetic tilt of the head is all you need to feel better, and that's what dogs do best! No judgement, no interruptions - as long as you have cuddles to offer in return, your pooch may just be the best therapist you've opened up to yet!
3. Keeping you mindful
One of the greatest traits of dogs is that they live in the moment, which is something we as humans are far less likely to do with all the concerns of modern life weighing heavy on our shoulders. Engaging with your pet, whether it's introducing them to a new walk, playing fetch in the house or taking cute photographs of them to share with friends, keeps you in the moment and gives you focus, allowing your worries about the past or future to melt away for the time being.
4. Helping you to get social
A great way our dogs can help us is by facilitating contact with other people, and we've found they can be a great ice-breaker! Joining a puppy training class is a fun way to meet other people and of course some adorable pups, too! Exercising your pooch in a popular dog-walking park can also be a great way to meet new people and you may just find yourself arranging an after-walk coffee when your dog takes an unexpected liking to the lovely local poodle!
5. Providing sensory stress relief
Stroking a pet is a brilliant way to relieve stress and begin to feel calmer. Not only does it let your pet know you love them and strengthen the bond you share, studies have shown that it can lower blood pressure and encourage the release of oxytocin, a mood-boosting hormone.
Reaching out for human help
With all of these points in mind, it is incredibly important to speak to a trusted person if things begin to get too much, whether that is a family member, close friend, GP, counsellor or samaritan. For more information about the Mental Health Foundation and the amazing work they do, please visit their website here. National organisation Samaritans offers a free, impartial and confidential ear to anyone needing to talk. They are available 24/7 on 166 123 or at their website.
"Most of all, when your confidence is at its lowest, when you feel battered – by life, death and (especially) other humans – a dog will shove her nose in your hand and tell you, with conviction and feeling, what a really good person you are."
- Julie Myerson, Author (taken from My Dog, My Friend, Clare Allen, 2014)