Earlier this year, I reached the very rock bottom of a particularly grueling mental-health spiral. With thoughts of suicide flooding my thought processes and an overall disinterest in life, I found myself scouring the internet for self-help articles looking for anything that could help me rekindle my zest for life.
I stumbled upon a slew of articles boasting the positive effects animals can have on mental health. Studies have shown that animals can provide comfort, be a source of motivation, boost physical activity and promote feelings of stability.
I knew I wasn’t well enough to take on a high-maintenance pet such as a dog or rabbit — nor did I have the resources to do so — so I decided to adopt a betta fish. I had read about how watching fish swim can reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure, and they are relatively low-cost and low-maintenance, so I gave it a go.Ophelia — morbidly named after Hamlet’s less-than-buoyant lost love — came into my life this past May. Within a day, this tiny pink and orange fish somehow found her way into my heart. Pet fish aren’t typically considered companion animals due to a lack of physical affection, communication and overall connection. However, they still provide the positive support of a relationship.
Every morning, I greet Ophelia, which has actually helped to jumpstart my day in terms of social interaction. Having to feed her daily and clean her bowl has improved my ability to maintain a routine, which has helped me foster a sense of stability. I have found that, in being responsible for something other than myself, I have managed to build a sense of healthy control over my life.
When I work at my desk and mumble to myself, Ophelia nuzzles up to the glass of her bowl and stares at me because betta fish can learn to recognize their owners. Additionally, once established in their new home, the scales of a betta fish begin to deepen in colour, meaning that they are happy.
You can also teach fish tricks. Currently, Ophelia is able to follow my finger around her bowl and jump out of her water for food. All of this is to say that Ophelia recognizes me and knows that I am her caregiver, and knowing the role I play in her development reminds me that I am capable of nurturance.
Basically, if I’m able to take care of another living entity, I am also able to take care of myself. While adopting a pet fish did not solve my mental-health issues, it was and is an important part in my overall mental-health plan.
The positive impact that Ophelia has made on me is perhaps quite subtle, but honestly, when you’re dealing with difficult circumstances, anything that promotes improvement in a healthy way is worth acknowledgement.
You don’t have to commit to a permanent companion for animal therapy, either. There are periodically scheduled PAWS Your Stress events on campus, in which St. John Ambulance’s therapy dogs provide a cuddly comfort to students. The SPCA is also open regularly for visits, where you are welcome to snuggle to your heart’s content.
Perhaps the idea of adopting a pet fish doesn’t thrill you as much as it does me, or maybe you know that animals don’t provide you with substantial catharsis, and that’s okay. Animal therapy may not work for everyone, but it does help some people, and that is worth celebrating.
Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk / Graphics Editor