The risk factors for suicide are varied, yet it must be asked whether companion pets can help reduce the tragedy of veteran suicide that is estimated to be as high as 22 per day. There are no signs of this epidemic abating despite years of attention at the highest levels of government and the military.
While there is no single solution to a problem as complex as suicide, it is nonetheless worth exploring companion pets as a viable component to other therapies for veterans who are at risk of suicide.
The very question – why do people commit suicide? – seems almost surreal to ask; we are always told that humans have an abiding will to live. However, there are other forces at play, natural human instincts such as depression, anxiety and loneliness, that – left unchecked – may increase a person’s suicide risk. In addition, there are experiences unique to military veterans that appear to increase their vulnerability to suicide.
So, why do veterans take their own lives and what can a companion pet do?
Suicide risk factors
The most common causes of suicide are various, and include financial problems, substance abuse, terminal illness and even family history. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on those causes that share a common thread: depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation.
Depression is a serious and debilitating psychological condition. It is a significant risk factor for suicide as well. Yet it consumes much less of the national conversation about veterans’ issues than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – sometimes referred to simply as PTS – which has, for the moment, captured the public’s attention.
The incidence of PTSD among military veterans is well documented. For Vietnam veterans, it is estimated that 30 percent of men and nearly 27 percent of women will experience PTSD in their lifetimes. For veterans who served during the Gulf War, and Iraq or Afghanistan Wars, estimates range from 10-14 percent.
In truth, veterans of every conflict have endured what is now called PTSD. WWII combat veterans dealt with “traumatic war neurosis,” “combat exhaustion” and “operational fatigue,” for example.
PTSD is typically caused by a major traumatic event or series of events, including – though not limited to – combat exposure. There are increased reports of PTSD among drone pilots, for example, many of whom operate hundreds or even thousands of miles from the battlefield.
Less discussed, however, is the incidence of depression among PTSD sufferers – not to mention the many veterans who are diagnosed with depression, but who do not have PTSD. Due to the efforts of many fine organizations to de-stigmatize PTSD, more veterans are coming forward to seek treatment. It is unclear whether veterans who have depression not associated with PTSD feel the same embrace.
Veterans coping with PTSD, depression – or both – often experience anxiety, a deep sense of isolation, and loneliness. Personal relationships may suffer as troubled individuals withdraw from the normal activities of daily life, including routine social interactions. Other aspects of a veteran’s life may be vulnerable as well, including employment and even the most basic aspects of caring for oneself. The more psychologically troubled people withdraw, the more difficult it becomes to extricate them from their withdrawal.
What can a companion pet do to alter the course of these veterans’ lives – to embrace life and turn away from a potential slide towards suicide?
Dogs feel our pain
If you have ever wondered if your dog knows how you are feeling, the answer is most likely ‘yes.’ Studies have shown that dogs, in particular, are able to mimic the facial expressions of their guardians. This phenomenon is believed to be an essential component of empathy, through which people (and animals) are able to form strong social interactions – an ’emotional bridge’ to others.
In short, dogs can help us re-establish positive social connections with our friends and loved ones, and help reverse a cycle of self-isolation.
Companion pets force us to live in the here and now
Animals do not dwell on what happened yesterday, nor do they fret about what may happen tomorrow. They live totally and completely in the moment, and essentially force their human guardians to do the same.
Pets demand our attention in myriad ways. They seek us out for affection, they require feeding, they need to be walked – or have litter boxes changed – and they need it now. Their insistence forces us to tend to their needs. It is no small feat that the daily demands of our pets can interrupt negative thoughts and behavior, and replace them with positive, life-affirming activities.
Dogs and cats are natural de-stressors
The mere act of petting a dog or cat can reduce stress.
The activity fulfills a basic need for touch, and has been shown to reduce blood pressure as well. Companion pets may even help us cope with stressful situations. In one study, people showed smaller increases in blood pressure and heart rate when asked to do a mental math task then when asked to do the same task in front of their spouse.
Let me entertain you
It is difficult not to be dazzled by the seemingly endless antics of our pets.
Anyone who has watched their cat take endless delight in an empty paper bag or their dog prance around the house with a stolen sock understands. Through their play, companion pets provide moments of levity that eventually become more enduring.
Pets get us moving
When people are depressed they tend to be less motivated to exercise or engage in any meaningful physical activity; at the same time, increased physical activity is associated with alleviating symptoms of depression. How do you overcome an emotional aversion to physical activity? Get a dog.
Companion dogs require regular walks, as well as opportunities for play. Many veterans in our program who are coping with depression choose a dog specifically to help get them out of the house and become more physically active. Although their depression makes them not want to get up and go, they feel duty bound to give the dog the necessary exercise and care.
In time, walking the dog becomes a welcome routine, one that brings both psychological and physical benefits. It can even help bring about casual, non-threatening social interactions, such as when people chat with one another about their pets, or where to find the best dog park.
Pets give us purpose
Dogs and cats make us feel needed because, like children, they depend on their guardians for everything: shelter, food, play, medical care and – most of all – love. And because the bonds we create with our companion pets are so profound, we grow to need them as well.
We often hear from veterans that their adopted pets give them a renewed sense of purpose. Sometimes they are elderly; they may be empty nesters or otherwise alone. If they are retired or unable to work, and are not otherwise engaged in meaningful activities – like volunteering, for example – they may come to feel as though their lives are rudderless.
Fortunately, military veterans are well suited to the responsibilities of pet guardianship. Their adherence to structure and routine is not only beneficial to their pets, but to re-establishing a sense of normalcy in their own daily lives.
I’m okay, you’re okay
Unlike people, our pets accept us exactly as we are – warts and all. They do not care what kind of car we drive, what labels are on our clothes or how much money we make. They accept us at face value, without condition.
Through our program we have helped veterans adopt many dogs and cats who suffered permanent physical and psychological damage at the hands of others. Their resilience is remarkable; their ignorance of their disabilities a powerful lesson to veterans who are coping with wounds of their own – seen and unseen.
Love without limits
It is often said that a dog loves her guardian even more than she loves herself. Cats love their people, too, though perhaps in more subtle ways. Even animals who have been neglected, abused and treated miserably by people show a tremendous capacity to love once they are in a safe and caring home. They live by example, and their unfettered love for us is as gratifying as the love of a human family member.
Companion pets are not a cure all for veterans, or anyone, with serious psychological disabilities. Nor are they an antidote to suicide. But for all the proven emotional benefits they deliver, we think they have earned a place as part of a multi-dimensional approach to reduce – and eliminate – the scourge of veteran suicide.