As a psychiatrist I can prescribe all sorts of medication and therapies. But there is one ‘treatment’ I know of that transforms patients’ lives more than any other. Sadly, it isn’t available on the NHS.
It isn’t a magic pill or potion. It’s not a cutting edge operation. It’s a dog.
Time and again I’ve seen how canine companions can help people through the darkest and most difficult periods of their lives.
Just this week, former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis wrote movingly in this paper about how her dog, Angela, has helped her cope with her husband’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis.
Now a novelist, Janet says that Angela, an Italian Spinone, is a ‘source of joy’ and a distraction from the emotional trauma and practical difficulties she, her husband John and their family are facing. Their pet encourages them to live life ‘to the full’.
Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis wrote movingly about how her dog, Angela, has helped her cope with her husband’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis
I understand where she’s coming from. A four-legged friend can have a truly profound impact and be a source of succour when medication and clinical staff cannot.
I remember one elderly lady — I’ll call her Mrs Leslie — who had been in hospital for four months recovering from a broken hip and chest infection.
The surgeon looking after her had noticed that she was becoming increasingly withdrawn and tearful, so I was asked to assess her mental state.
When I arrived on the ward, Mrs Leslie sighed and turned her face to the wall.
‘Do you think you are depressed?’ I ventured. She shrugged.
I sat at the bottom of her bed while she continued to stare at the wall and said nothing.
Eventually, when I had almost given up hope of any further interaction, she whispered: ‘I miss Robbie.’
‘It must be very hard for you,’ I replied as I knew from her notes that she had been widowed two years previously and had no other family. ‘How long were you and Robbie married?’
She turned to look at me, puzzled, then shook her head. ‘Robbie’s my Jack Russell. I was married to my husband for 40 years but I don’t miss him.’
‘Oh,’ I said, a little taken aback.
‘My neighbours have been looking after Robbie,’ she continued, ‘but they’re not dog people and apparently he’s keeping them awake all night howling.
‘He never howls when he’s with me. What if I have to go into a nursing home? What will happen to him then?’
There were tears in her eyes as she added: ‘I don’t know what I would do without that dog.’
Now she had embarked on the subject of Robbie, there was no stopping Mrs Leslie. She told me that although she lived alone, she had never felt lonely because she had Robbie. He was 14 years old and blind in one eye, but he clearly gave her life meaning in a way that no antidepressant pill I could prescribe ever would.
This isn’t just conjecture. Studies repeatedly show that as well as providing companionship, pets also have a demonstrable impact on our physical health.
Older dog owners, for example, are more than twice as likely to maintain their mobility as non-dog owners because they have to regularly walk their pups. Pet owners also have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and are less likely to feel lonely.
And as the Mail’s pain supplement reported this week, just stroking an animal increases your production of oxytocin, a hormone that acts as a natural painkiller.
Doctors often reach for the prescription pad when an alternative solution wears a collar and is wagging its tail.
I didn’t prescribe any drugs for Mrs Leslie. Instead, I spoke to her surgeon and the district nurse and we concluded that it was in her best interests to return home.
A week later she was discharged back to the care of a certain Jack Russell — it was just the tonic she needed and exactly what this doctor ordered.
How kindness really can kill
The number of deaths of homeless people in England and Wales rose by a record 22 per cent last year, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.
Of these, nearly half were the result of drug overdoses, up a staggering 55 per cent from 2017.
Certainly the Government should be doing more to tackle our growing homelessness problem — not least by improving drug, alcohol and mental health services for those on the streets.
The number of deaths of homeless people in England and Wales rose by a record 22 per cent last year, according to the latest ONS figures
But the public must take some responsibility, too.
I used to work with drug addicts, many of whom would beg on the streets for money ostensibly for food or accommodation. Instead they spent whatever cash they got on drugs.
Inadvertently, these generous donors were putting our patients at risk and undermining the work that the drug services were trying to do. It was constant battle.
I have attended numerous funerals of former patients who were homeless drug addicts. Often I was the only person in attendance apart from the priest.
I would stand there and think how those who had given the addicts money — to show they cared and make themselves feel better — had actually helped them to die. They really had killed them with their misplaced kindness.
Next time you see someone begging, rather than reach into your pocket for loose change think about the consequences of your actions — and donate to a homeless charity instead.
DR MAX PRESCRIBES… the flu vaccine
The statistics are scary: around 15,000 people in the UK die from flu every year. Around half of those infected don’t show any symptoms, but can unwittingly pass on the virus to more vulnerable people.
In particular, schoolchildren are ‘super spreaders’ of the virus which is why this year, for the first time, all those of primary school age will be offered the vaccine (in a nasal spray).
Yes, the flu virus can mutate and scientists don’t always get right their predictions of which strain will be circulating, but it’s the civic duty of the rest of us to have a flu jab, too.
Coronation Street star Jack P. Shepherd has had a hair transplant because he says losing his hair made him so depressed he considered giving up acting
Coronation Street star Jack P. Shepherd has had a hair transplant because he says losing his hair made him so depressed he considered giving up acting.
I have previously written about the mental health struggles many men experience when they start losing their hair. As a result, a number of women have contacted me to say they, too, have suffered hair loss that resulted in severe depression.
It’s a problem that is rarely talked about, yet many feel that hair loss for women is even worse psychologically than it is for men. I’m inclined to agree.
While men might not like the prospect of going bald, it is at least relatively common. For women it is far less socially acceptable and many feel acutely ashamed and embarrassed.
We certainly need to be more open about female hair loss, so women don’t suffer in silence.
One toxic habit I struggled to escape
This month is Stoptober, Public Health England’s annual campaign to encourage people to quit smoking. Since its launch seven years ago, more than one million people have tried to wean themselves off cigarettes.
We all know it, but it cannot be said too often or too loudly: giving up smoking tobacco really is the best possible thing you can do for your health.
Too often healthcare professionals position themselves as judgmental, finger-wagging nannyish figures. I think it puts people off listening to them, even those who are desperate to quit.
As many readers of this column will know, I’m an ex-smoker. I smoked about 30 cigarettes a day for many years and enjoyed it. And I know from bitter experience how hard it is to stop.
Trying to make such a significant behavioural change — and give up something you are more than a little addicted to — is anxiety provoking.
People think that they have to be entirely committed before they try to quit, so put it off by telling themselves that the time isn’t right.
The truth is smokers will always be a little ambivalent about whether they really want to stop, and readily find excuses not to.
All I can say is that I thought I loved smoking. Now I see it for what it was: a bad relationship I was better off without. Dumping cigarettes is the best thing I ever did.