For LGBTQ+ youth, pets may help with depression and anxiety in times of COVID-19 and social isolation

VCU School of Social Work research into stress among LGBTQ+ youth has been expanded during the pandemic to include how pets can help with mental health.

A group of video conference participants with their pets.
A team meeting of the Children, Families, and Animals Research (CFAR) Group over video conference, with pets. For the full list of VCU students and faculty, along with their pets, see below. (Courtesy image)

Over the past year, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work professor Shelby McDonald, Ph.D., and colleagues have conducted around 150 interviews with LGBTQ+ youth as part of a study into the kinds of stress they face and how different social supports can influence the impact of the stressors on mental health and resilience.

For example, the researchers have been investigating stress faced by LGBTQ+ youth such as microaggressions, discrimination, family rejection and victimization, as well as various supports such as access to an LGBTQ-affirming community, peer and family support, and bonds with pets.

“We know how important pets are to youth who have to navigate negative relationships with family members and peers,” McDonald said. “We also know that a majority of youth identify relationships with pets as an important component of their mental health, especially for those experiencing depression and anxiety."

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

But rather than scaling back or slowing down the study — which also includes co-investigators and VCU social work faculty members Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., and Traci Wike, Ph.D. — the team obtained approval from VCU’s Institutional Review Board to expand it to include questions about how pets may be playing a role in promoting mental health among LGBTQ+ youth.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding, I was witnessing a lot of dialogue on Twitter that addressed the significant role of pets for those who were struggling with isolation brought on by being quarantined or engaging in social distancing,” McDonald said. “I was also seeing a lot of people post about the disproportionate negative social and economic impacts of this crisis on LGBTQ+ individuals.”

For example, she said, some universities were requiring students to go home, which could mean that many LGBTQ+ students would be returning to families that might not be supportive or accepting of their identity.

“This can further exacerbate stress and mental health difficulties,” she said. “No one was talking about the intersection of these issues in relation to the pandemic, and I felt it was important to know how these important social relationships [involving pets] are impacted during this time for LGBTQ+ young people.”

McDonald and her team are gathering information that they believe may prove helpful for people who are asked to quarantine or practice social distancing in future outbreaks.

“We’ll be examining if relationships with pets change during the pandemic and the pros and cons of interspecies cohabitation during this public health crisis,” she said. “We’ll also be looking at resources and supports that have been helpful for those living with pets during this situation, as well as obstacles to engaging in social distancing or self-quarantining that stem from living with pets.”

The team is also looking at what advice youth would give to others who have to go through similar situations in the future. Notably, the researchers have found significantly higher rates of living with pets among LGBTQ+ youth — a rate of 90% in their study — than is found in the broader population.

“It’s critical that we understand how to support interspecies families during this and potential future pandemics,” McDonald said.

We know how important pets are to youth who have to navigate negative relationships with family members and peers. We also know that a majority of youth identify relationships with pets as an important component of their mental health, especially for those experiencing depression and anxiety.

McDonald’s research team currently includes 11 students from the School of Social Work and elsewhere at VCU. Ryan O’Ryan, an Honors College student majoring in psychology and sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is serving as project coordinator for initial interviews, and Social Work doctoral student Camie Tomlinson is serving as project coordinator for follow-up interviews. Angela Matijczak and Jennifer Murphy, Ph.D. students in the School of Social Work, and Caroline Richards, an Honors College student and incoming social work master’s degree student, have also served in critical roles on the project throughout the year. Other research assistants include students Shanzeh Saeed, Keosha Haskins, Nicole George, Liza Kremer, Liz Becker and Charlotte Eure.

“I’m so impressed by this team of students,” McDonald said. “They are wonderful colleagues — incredibly adaptable, dedicated and smart. I could not have continued the project during this time without them.”

The team has been continuing its work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our entire team is working from home and fully embracing social distancing,” McDonald said. “We are very thankful for VCU [Institutional Review Board’s] speedy review of our recent amendment, which has allowed us to move all of our data collection for this project online. We were already conducting follow-up interviews via videoconferencing, but now we have approval to conduct initial interviews via Zoom as well.”

This project is a natural extension of McDonald’s prior work, which focused on the impact of childhood adversity and trauma on the socioemotional and behavioral functioning of young people, and involved the role pets could play.

“Pets are present in a majority of U.S. families, yet are often overlooked when we think about sources of support and stress in families,” she said. “For this reason, I’m interested in how human-animal interaction can be harnessed to promote the well-being of vulnerable youth, caregivers and communities and foster healthy caregiver-child-pet interactions.”

During this time of COVID-19 and social distancing, McDonald encourages people to check in on their neighbors who are most vulnerable, and to remember to ask if they have pets and what resources they might need.

“Even if the person is quarantined with other people, a pet may be their most significant form of social support or valued relationship,” she said. “People who fear they have no one to take care of their pet may avoid seeking out needed medical help; it’s not uncommon for people to prioritize their pet’s health and safety over their own.”

She added that anyone who has a pet should have a plan for their care in the event that they contract COVID-19 and experience severe symptoms. For more information, she noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put together a resource guide about animals and COVID-19.

Photo caption: Children, Families, and Animals Research (CFAR) team meeting (with pets):

Top row: Laura Booth, a VCU social work alumna, and Sugar; Shelby McDonald, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work, and Kreacher; social work master’s degree student Liz Becker and Sookie; Camie Tomlinson, Ph.D., student in social work, and Prickle.

Second row: Jen Murphy, a Ph.D. student in the School of Social Work, and Macy; psychology student Keo Haskins and Saga; social work master’s degree student Charlotte Eure, Lita and Nami; and Caroline Richards an Honors College and sociology and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies student, with Margot.

Third row: Social work master’s degree student Nicole George and Storm; Ryan O’Ryan, an Honors College and psychology and sociology student, with Taf and Blook; doctoral social work student Angela Matijczak and Penny; and social work student Liza Kremer and Mango.

Bottom Row: VCU psychology student Shanzeh Saeed and Cali.

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