- Suicidal behavior is often the result of feelings of not belonging, being a burden to others, and a sense that change is hopeless.
- A pet dog can reduce depression and loneliness. New data shows that this can reduce suicidal tendencies.
- Whether a dog is likely to lessen an owner's likelihood of suicide depends upon the strength and nature of their relationship.
- The case history of actor Mickey Rourke demonstrates how a dog can be effective in suicide prevention.
We are all familiar with stories of dogs that save people's lives. The list of situations in which this happens is long, including saving people from drowning, finding lost and injured people, fending off wild animals, sounding the alarm in cases of fire, and many others. Some new research suggests that we can now add an additional life-saving ability to the resume of dogs—namely the possibility that they may lower the likelihood of suicide.
The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide
Valerie Douglas of North Dakota State University led a team of researchers in exploring what is known as the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide. Suicide has been shown to be predicted by a number of factors, including depression and feelings of loneliness. This particular theory states that people are more likely to want to commit suicide if three factors combine: 1) a feeling that they do not belong; 2) the idea that they are a burden to others; and 3) a sense of hopelessness that these conditions will never change.
It is possible that a pet dog can influence, and lessen, the strength of these factors since owners often indicate that their pet provides them with companionship in the form of a creature to love. That means that having a pet could increase a person's sense of belongingness and thereby reduce the desire for suicide. In addition, taking care of a pet can also affect one's perception of being a burden, since owners often feel responsibility and a sense of purpose in caring for their pets. This sense of responsibility and purpose can alleviate feelings of being a burden and therefore serve as a buffer against suicidal thoughts.
Can Pet Dogs Reduce Suicidal Tendencies?
In this recent study, the researchers tested 269 participants, 187 who indicated that they owned pets, and 87 who were not pet owners. Each participant filled out four different inventories: one measured feelings of belonging and the perception of being a burden; two looked at the nature and strength of their attachment to their pet; and the last looked at their predisposition toward suicidal behaviors.
In general, the results indicated that individuals with a strong bond with their pets showed a reduced likelihood of suicidal behaviors.
However, all pet owners did not receive an equal benefit. There are a range of feelings that people have about their pets, with some having strong affection, and some being worried, anxious, or annoyed about them (e.g. "If I can't get my pet to show interest in me, I get upset or angry."). Some people avoid intimacy with their pets even to the extent that they say "I am nervous when my pet gets too close to me." Such individuals did not show the benefits of pet ownership when it comes to reducing suicidal tendencies.
The authors conclude:
We found that having a strong bond with one’s pet was associated with lowered feelings of being a burden and lower suicide risk. Having a more avoidant attachment to one’s pet was associated with higher feelings of not belonging and higher suicide risk. Having a more anxious attachment to one’s pet was associated with higher feelings of not belonging, higher feelings of being a burden, and higher suicide risk.
The Case of Mickey Rourke
An interesting case history of how a dog might help protect a person from suicidal actions involves the actor Mickey Rourke. On January 11, 2009, he won the Golden Globe Award for best actor for his performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. When actors give acceptance speeches for such awards it is common for them to thank their families or God, but Rourke thanked his dogs. If it had not been for the therapeutic effects of his relationship with his dogs, he suggested, he might have committed suicide long before he got a chance to accept that award.
Rourke seemed destined to be a superstar in the 1980s. Most critics agreed that his performances in Diner (1982), Rumble Fish (1983) 9½ Weeks (1986), and Angel Heart (1987) seemed to contain signs that he could become another James Dean or even Robert DeNiro. Unfortunately, Rourke's acting career eventually became overshadowed by his personal life. Directors found it difficult to work with him. Alan Parker said, "Working with Mickey is a nightmare. He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do." Rourke also began to show the effects of substance abuse. Ultimately he virtually disappeared from the cinematic world.
Rourke’s career was revived when director Robert Rodriguez cast him in the role of a sinister hitman in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). Two years later Rodriguez again called upon him, this time to play Marv, one of the antiheroes from Frank Miller's crime-noir comic book series Sin City (2005). In that film, Rourke delivered an alternately chilling and amusing performance that reminded doubters that he was still a force to be reckoned with. However, getting to that stage in his life required the intervention of a dog.
Depression was one of Rourke’s problems in the 1990s. His friends abandoned him, thus taking away a sense of belonging. In the end, he felt he was left with only his dog for solace. Rourke admits that things had gotten bad enough so that one day he went into a closet with his beloved dog Beau Jack, locking the door and planning to commit suicide with a drug overdose. In the end, he couldn't go through with it because of his relationship with his little Chihuahua-cross dog. Rourke describes the scene: "(I was) doing some crazy s**t, but I saw a look in Beau Jack's eyes, and I put the s**t down. That dog saved my life."
So it was that following his remarkable comeback, and his rise from the depth of depression and suicidality, Rourke was able to stand in front of colleagues to accept his Golden Globe award. However, his speech was different from others—including not only references to the contributions and support of professional colleagues, but also this line: “I’d like to thank all my dogs, the ones that are here, the ones that aren’t here anymore, because sometimes when a man’s alone that’s all you got is your dog, and they meant the world to me.”
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission
LinkedIn/Facebook image: Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock
Douglas, V., Kwan, M., & Gordon, K. (2021, In press). Pet Attachment and the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/p67bu