Nobody should experience discrimination or exclusion because of their mental health, and everyone should be able to readily access the mental health support they require.
We need a mental health system that is fully funded, accessible to everyone, and meets the needs of the community.
The Animal Justice Party (AJP) also acknowledges the need to address systemic factors which negatively affect mental health, such as inequality, economic stress, housing, violence, animal cruelty, environmental destruction, and the climate emergency.
Refocus the mental health system with greater emphasis on prevention, early intervention, and community-based services so that support for mental health is normalised and part of a broader health care system available to everyone.
Improve coordination of services and support systems that recognise the social determinants of health and shift focus from a biomedical to a community mental health approach.
Provide a mix of adequately staffed and funded mental health services, from early intervention to crisis care, that are affordable and accessible.
Acknowledge and address systemic factors, such as inequality, economic stress, housing, violence, animal cruelty, workplace-induced trauma, environmental destruction and the climate emergency, which negatively affect mental health.
Expand opportunities for people to have mutually beneficial interactions with animals and the natural environment.
Advocate for the recognition that animals are sentient beings who also have mental health needs and can experience stress, depression, and anxiety.
Support the vital work of people involved in the rescue and care of animals with adequate funding as well as providing training in self-care and support for mental well-being.
Mental health has been described by the World Health Organisation as ‘a state of well-being in which an individual realises [their] own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to [their] community’. The social, economic and physical environments in which people live shape their physical and mental health, and risk factors for many common mental health concerns are strongly related to social inequalities.
Animals and nature have a largely positive impact on people’s mental health. Non-human animals can also experience depression-like states, for example, when deprived of their natural behaviours. They are even used to study depression in humans – a practice the AJP seeks to end (see our Animal Experimentation Policy). Further, violence towards animals can be detrimental to human mental health.
Data from the 2021 Census shows that the ‘most commonly reported long-term health condition in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory was a mental health condition’. Almost half (45%) of the population aged 16–85 will experience a mental health concern at some time in their life. One in five Australians reports high or very high levels of mental distress; during 2020-21 mental distress was higher in states that were most affected by Covid-19 and lockdown measures.
During 2020-21, young people (aged 15-34 years) were more likely to experience mental health concerns and had higher rates of mental or behavioural conditions than older people (aged 55 years and over). The most common concerns were anxiety and depression. Women were more likely than men to have anxiety or depression. Further, some groups experience higher rates of mental and psychological distress than others. These include First Nations people, LGBTQIA+ Australians, and Australians with disabilities.
In 2019–20, 4.4 million people (17.2% of the Australian population) filled a prescription for a mental-health-related medication, with an average of 9.2 prescriptions per patient. Australian consumption of antidepressants is the second highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Mental health service system
Reviews of the mental health service system in Australia (e.g., the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Mental Health and the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System) have found that demand has overtaken capacity of the system, and the system is fractured and in need of redesign.
Hospital emergency services have become entry points to assistance because not enough community-based services are available. Existing services are not well integrated and people in need of services find it hard to navigate the system. In rural and regional areas, people have to travel vast distances to get help. Further, access to services is not equitable, and poverty and disadvantage make it particularly difficult to access services.
The Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System identified as one of its major themes, the over-reliance on medication. ‘Services have come to rely on medication as the main, or sometimes only, treatment people can receive due to major system-wide challenges, such as under-resourcing. This has led to an imbalance, with a lack of focus on therapeutic interventions and recovery-centred treatment, care and support.’ Government funding needs to prioritise and support prevention and early intervention. It needs to listen to the voices of people living with mental health concerns and their carers, to provide holistic care that is people-centred.
Animal abuse and violence towards humans
Violence causes mental distress and trauma and can lead to long-term mental health issues for victims and perpetrators. The link between animal abuse and violence towards people, in particular child abuse, elder abuse and domestic violence has been well documented, and it is an indicator for severe violence like domestic homicide. Victim-survivors say concern for their animals, and not having the means to leave with the animals, prevented them from leaving family violence situations sooner (for more, see our Domestic Violence Policy). During the Covid-19 pandemic, domestic/family violence against people and animals increased. In 2020, the NSW Parliament - led by the Animal Justice Party - amended the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 to explicitly recognise the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, and include animals on Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders. The NSW Government also committed funding for women’s refuges to build animal-friendly housing. In 2021, the Victorian Parliament passed a motion to recognise animal abuse as a form of family violence.
Animal agriculture creates its own mental health challenges. Slaughterhouse work, in particular, has been linked to a range of mental health disorders, including Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), which is a lesser-known form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A 2013 Queensland study found that people who work in slaughterhouses are more likely to have a propensity towards aggression. This is consistent with research in the US which found that towns with slaughterhouses have higher rates of domestic violence and violent crimes. The AJP supports providing assistance to enable those in the animal production industries, and slaughterhouse workers, to transition to more humane, plant-based industries - see our Decent Work Policy.
‘Compassion fatigue is a broadly defined concept that is typically associated with caregiving in which people or animals are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering … Symptoms of compassion fatigue may include, but are not limited to, dissociation, numbness, isolation, hypervigilance, sleep problems, tearfulness, avoidance, and/or obsession and often develop over time’. Compassion fatigue is not uncommon among people who care for animals in professional and volunteer roles.
The distress experienced by animal care workers, such as carers in animal shelters and veterinary nurses and technicians, is extensive. It has been described as similar to that of people who have lost animal companions. In particular, carers directly involved in euthanasia report higher levels of work stress and lower levels of job satisfaction. Volunteers in animal shelters report higher levels of compassion fatigue when live release rates are low.
An Australian study of the financial and emotional effects on the 20,000 volunteers who rescue, rehabilitate and release injured and/or orphaned Australian wildlife found that 28% of the volunteers were experiencing moderate to severe grief. Their grief increased with the number of joeys who died in their care and as wildlife carers’ financial costs went up. There were also physical challenges, for example, sleep deprivation caused by 4-hourly feeding of joeys. Over 65% of the volunteers felt that their welfare, and that of the animals for whom they care, is neglected and unappreciated by government agencies.
The physical, emotional and mental exhaustion experienced by wildlife carers is likely to lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. A recent study found that: ‘The wildlife carers who manage Australia’s injured and orphaned native animals are a national asset that requires strategic nurturing with empathy, understanding, financial and psychological support if it is to remain viable and sustainable.’ Ongoing professional training supported by organisations and professional networks in the areas of emergency preparedness, resilience, self-care and capacity building is known to help.
Veterinarians and their staff experience higher levels of distress, compassion fatigue and suicidal behaviour compared to the broader population (see our Veterinary Care Policy). Animal and other activists can also suffer distress and burnout.
The benefits of involvement with companion animals
Almost two-thirds of Australian households include at least one companion animal, and there are more companion animals than people in Australia. Dogs and cats are the most common. Companion animals contribute to their guardians’ well-being and mental health. An Australian survey of ‘pets and people’ found that more than 60% of guardians consider their animals as family members, and almost nine in ten say their animals have a very positive impact on their lives. The main reported benefits include love, affection and companionship. Companion animals can also facilitate social interaction, for example with neighbours or strangers while walking a dog.
Interaction with companion animals can help alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Research shows that companion animals can provide calming support and an emotional connection, which is particularly important in crisis situations. Companion animals can also encourage regular physical exercise, which is essential for mental well-being.
Involvement with a companion animal contributes to the overall well-being of older adults. Older people with companion animals are less stressed by major adverse life events compared to those without companion animals.
For those living with cognitive impairment, such as dementia, interaction with companion animals can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and cognitive impairment and can even improve blood pressure and heart rate variability.
Mental health of animals
Animals are sentient beings and as such, can experience distress. Their mental wellbeing is also important and this is well recognised by people who live with companion animals.
Freedom is crucial for human and non-human animals, as the evidence on the effects of captivity shows. Captivity not only limits freedom of movement, it can also prevent the performance of basic behaviours. Examples include hens in battery cages who cannot fully extend their wings, sows in cages such as gestation crates who are unable to turn around, or birds kept as companion animals in small cages. Research has found that captivity leads to depressive-like states in animals and prolonged captivity imposes great suffering.
Captivity of wildlife is associated with a range of stressors from which many animals never recover. Physiological changes caused by captivity can even last after the animal has been released back into their natural environment. The extent and duration of captivity stress vary by species. Common stress responses include weight loss, changes to the immune system and decreased reproductive capacity.
In salmon aquaculture, up to a quarter of fishes are growth-stunted. They float listlessly on the surface and are easy to catch. Researchers have identified high levels of cortisol, a stress-response hormone, and ‘elevated brain serotonergic activation’ in these animals, a combination which makes them unresponsive to more stress – they are chronically stressed.
Research shows that time spent in nature is associated with mental health benefits, at relatively low cost. This includes evidence that links nature experience with increased positive affect; happiness and subjective well-being; positive social interactions, cohesion and engagement; a sense of meaning and purpose in life; improved manageability of life tasks; and decreases in mental distress, such as negative affect. In addition, nature experience has been shown to positively affect various aspects of cognitive function, memory and attention, impulse inhibition, and children’s school performance, as well as imagination and creativity.
A study in the UK found that spending at least 120 minutes a week in natural environments benefits health and well-being. Children and teenagers’ mental health can benefit from interaction with nature. For example, increased accessibility to nature and increased exposure to nature were associated with improvements in ADD/ADHD symptoms.
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Date first published: 2016
Date last reviewed: 16 November 2022