Suicide: How Pets Can Pull Us Back from the Brink

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In 1998, wild-animal biologist Stacey O’Brien was leveled by random blackout episodes. Raging headaches soon followed. One day, paramedics broke into her car after she’d passed out and passers-by could not rouse her. Imaging revealed a non-cancerous, but inoperable brain tumor. Confined to a wheelchair, her disability resources depleted and staring down a poor prognosis, O’Brien considered suicide. 

One thing stopped her. O’Brien’s adopted barn owl, Wesley, would die of shock and grief. O’Brien remembered what an esteemed mentor once told her: “To that which you have tamed, you owe your life.”

Per Centers for Disease Control statistics, nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives in 2016. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. One final straw of stress collapses the lonely and isolated load-bearer. Survivors often blame themselves for not “seeing the signs” and are left wondering what they could have said or done to change the outcome.

Even in the face of voiced support, a determined person may find a way to end their pain - forever. Words do not always bind to reason in the minds of the desperate and inconsolable. After all is said, everyone returns to their own lives.

Perhaps the most compelling case for living is made  - not with words - but with furry or feathered cuddles. Knowing that a living being loves and accepts us no matter what can float our hopes and restore our self-worth. Their need for us in their lives can revive our purpose.

Pets free us from the need to explain our decisions or our condition. “Saving face” is unnecessary because ours is the face they kiss every day - no matter what we’ve done, no matter whom we’ve disappointed.

Johnnie June testifies that it was her recently-passed Corgi, Bear Cub, who pulled her through her desolate teenage years: “He didn’t judge me like other kids did. He didn’t feel helpless . . . or confused. It’s great to have a ‘little sausage’ when you’re struggling with so much.” 

The tonic power of pets is well-documented: lowered anxiety, blood pressure and depression. A pet’s prescription for our improved health and well-being is simple: tumble on the rug together, sing and dance on our respective perches, step out into the sun for some quick cardio and a shower of vitamin D.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia and the Center for Diet and Activity Research at the University of Cambridge found that dog owners between the ages of 49 and 91 were more active than their non-pet counterparts. This was true even during winter months when days are shorter and seasonal depression is more likely to set in.

Combat veterans may experience additional layers of despair. Post traumatic stress disorder and concussive injuries from improvised explosive devices can result in reduced memory and attention and impair functioning on personal and professional levels. For some, routine interactions are fraught with peril. A few may withdraw completely and plan a date with the grim reaper.

Veterans Hospitals like the one in which I work incorporate pet therapy in their recovery programs. Pets for Vets helps veterans and pets create new beginnings together. Many mental health professionals appreciate the role of pet as empath, devoted friend and listener. Rescued pet therapy animals, in particular, can be a living model of resilience to those who might otherwise give up.

My dad, a hardened WWII combat vet who saw his commanding officer eviscerated by an exploding 88mm mortar at the Battle of the Bulge, took solace in the company of animals after the war. His ragdoll cat, Sam, remained steadfastly by dad’s side as his life faded away last April. It may very well have been Sam - and the menagerie of pets who preceded him - who kept dad from imploding through the many hardships of his life.

Nothing can guarantee that a suicidal person won’t take that final, tragic step. But a furry or feathered friend might just make the difference between one stepping off a roof and stepping up into their higher selves.