There have been many unsung heroes throughout the pandemic from NHS workers to supermarket assistants, but perhaps the most underrated of them all – our pets. The silent witnesses to our lives, and perhaps a key benefactor to maintaining good mental health.
As Northern Ireland looks forward to gradually exiting lockdown this summer, it will come as a welcome relief to the thousands suffering from the negative impact lockdown has had on their mental wellbeing.
In 2020 it was reported that Northern Ireland had the highest rate of mental illness in the UK. The suicide rate for men was recorded as being twice the level of that in England.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland also warned as we exit lockdown, we could see a 30 per cent increase in demand for mental health services.
More broadly across the UK, a recent study conducted by Glasgow University sought to uncover declining trends in mental health throughout the first phase of lockdown.
Their conclusion found that mental wellbeing was affected by lockdown restrictions, especially for young women aged 18-29.
Young women like Belfast-based fashion student Shonagh, who suffers from severe depression and felt lockdown restrictions had “cut off” her usual support network.
Shonagh described her mental health before the pandemic as – “living the ‘pandemic life’ people are living now, stuck at home and not going places for two years prior. Just with how bad my depression and anxiety were. I was having bad panic attacks about going anywhere, I also had really bad insomnia too, and had been receiving psychiatric help to try and deal with that”.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Shonagh had a pet cat called Ezlo, who she described as her “wee rock”. At her lowest points, Ezlo was always there, to keep her company and “cuddled” her on “long nights of no sleep and long days of being alone at home”.
In November 2020 Ezlo passed away, a loss taken hard by Shonagh. After a second lockdown took hold of Northern Ireland in winter, Shonagh’s mental health began to spiral downwards again. “Not getting to spend time with family over the holidays like we usually would was hard” she recalled.
“The winter lockdown really has hit me hard; it’s definitely been detrimental to my wellbeing and cut off my support system”.
Following her loss of Ezlo and declining mental health, Shonagh made the decision with her partner to adopt 3 more cats – Mipha, Jeff, and Peach from separate homes.
When asked if she felt her pet cats had any positive effect on her mental wellbeing, Shonagh replied, “There really is no way to quantify the positive effect cats have on me…I probably wouldn’t get out of bed otherwise. I live to look after them”.
An anecdotal story shared by 53 percent of Northern Irish cat owners, according to Northern Ireland’s first CATS (Cats and their stats) report published in October 2020.
According to the report there are over 290,000 owned cats in Northern Ireland – almost one for every six people. In Shonagh’s case three, putting her above the average of nearly two cats per feline household.
The concerns over mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic encouraged more research to be carried out. This time, investigating the role that animals play in the context of widespread lockdown measures and mental wellbeing.
A recent UK 2021 study conducted by the Department of Health Sciences at the university of York, analysed the human-animal relationship in lockdown. The study breaks the data down by species also, to gauge insight into which animals have the biggest positive impact on our mental wellbeing.
5,926 individuals over the age of 18 and were involved in the study which was carried out during the first “lockdown phase” – arguably the time when most people complied with the stay-at-home rules.
The study looked at whether pet ownership prevented the negative impacts of lockdown on mental health, and perhaps served as a shield against feelings of loneliness. In this survey, the most common pets were dogs (70 percent), followed by cats (44 percent).
The study concluded that 89 percent of cat owners said their cat helped them cope emotionally over lockdown. This corroborates the Northern Irish CATS report that found 87 percent of cat owners in Northern Ireland said their cat brought joy to their lives.
However, with great cats come great responsibility. Shonagh emphasised this point while describing Mipha, a cat she found on Gumtree. When adopting her, Shonagh described her as being “very malnourished, with worms and fleas”. The previous owner had become too unwell to look after the cat according to Shonagh.
Whilst owning a cat can clearly bring many benefits to a lonely household, responsible pet ownership must be at the forefront. Advice on what precautions you need to take before bringing a cat into your home can be found on the Nidirect.gov.uk website.