Exploring Benefits of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs): A Longitudinal Pilot Study with Adults with Serious Mental Illness (SMI)

Janet Hoy-Gerlach1, Aviva Vincent 2, Barry Scheuermann 3, and Mamta Ojha 4

1,4 Social Work Program, The University of Toledo, 2Veterinary Social Work Certificate Program, The University of Tennessee, 3 School of Exercise Science and Rehabilitation, The University of Toledo

While anecdotal accounts describe mental health recovery-related benefits of having Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), to date there have been no studies on such within peer-reviewed journals. This pilot study yields data on how ESAs may facilitate mental health recovery and related benefits for persons with Serious Mental Illness (SMI). Through an ESA placement program, the Hope and Recovery Pet program (HARP), shelter dogs and cats were placed as ESAs with adults (N=11) with SMI. A longitudinal mixed method research design was utilized to explore potential ESA impact. Pre- and post-placement data from participants was collected on depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Biomarker data (saliva analytes assessing oxytocin, cortisol, alpha amylase) were collected before and after ten-minute interactions with ESAs at 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12 months. Qualitative data was collected twelve months post-placement. Significant reductions in anxiety, depression, and loneliness scale scores via the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), and UCLA Loneliness Scale (UCLA), respectively, were found. While not significant, there was a pattern of oxytocin increase and cortisol decrease after ten minutes of ESA interaction. Qualitative data indicated participants attributed their improvements in mental health and well-being to their respective ESAs. Findings underscore the need for continued research on ESA companionship as a mental health recovery support.

Click here to read the full article.

Keywords: emotional support animal, mental health recovery, One Health, serious mental illness
Posted in Pre-Publication Articles