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It's well known that service animals are beneficial and therapeutic for people with disabilities, but they can also be extremely helpful for mental health. I'm the mom to four guinea pigs, and I also struggle with major depressive disorder. While most people probably wouldn't think of a guinea pig as a therapist, they've done a great deal for me in multiple ways.
Depression and other mental illnesses can make it hard to feel worthy and lovable. When interacting with people, it feels like there are strings attached and expectations to meet. But with animals, they just love us, and that unconditional acceptance is so powerful for someone who's depressed. My guinea pigs may have tiny little brains, but somehow they seem to sense when I'm struggling and manage to love me a little louder in return.
Isolation is common among people with depression. For people living alone, it's even worse. When my depression is bad, sometimes my only contact with people is when I have to make a trip to the grocery store. It would be hard not to get lonely spending so much time alone if I didn't have the guinea pigs. Even when I'm not interacting with them directly, having the presence and noise and movement of other living beings helps me to feel less alone.
Guinea pigs are pretty low maintenance in this regard, but they still require care, including a full-scale cleaning of their cage on a regular basis. No matter how much depression might try to keep me glued to my bed, I know that tending to the piggies' needs is absolutely not optional. Like any animals, guinea pigs are very routine based, which in turn can help me to stick to a routine. If it's vegetable time and there are no vegetables forthcoming, they will give me loud vocal prompting, which might give me that bit of motivation I need to haul myself off to the grocery store.
I was never that keen on the idea of focusing on the breath that is so often associated with mindfulness. What I've found, though, is that I can always manage to ground myself in present moment awareness when I'm watching the guinea pigs do their thing. Whether it's Casper running fast and furious laps around the cage, or Squeaky always going for a drink of water after his second bite of pellets, they are always fascinating. Even when my attention for everything else has gone out the window, the piggies can still hold me riveted in the present moment.
Decrease suicide risk.
Two main elements come into play when it comes to suicidality: risk factors and protective factors. One thing that's known to protect people from suicide risk is to have a strong sense of responsibility for someone/something else. Pets are one such responsibility, and that's something that's certainly helped to anchor me when I've struggled with suicidal thoughts in the past.
I work as a mental health nurse, and I'll sometimes bring the piggies to work. When clients get anxious or agitated, sometimes the guinea pigs can be even more effective than giving extra medication. One of my clients who struggled with a lot of psychotic symptoms always calmed right down when he was able to sit with the piglets. He particularly adored Cookie, who's in the picture above, because she loves to soulfully stare into people's eyes. He was convinced Cookie knew what he was thinking and accepted it, and that gave him a lot of comfort. He was able to connect with animals in a way that he was just too sick for when it came to humans. It truly was magic to watch.
My guinea pig therapy treatment plan is working out very well. They're not going to be short of work anytime soon, and payment in the form of fresh veggies is pretty darn sustainable.