It's no surprise that college campuses are lacking in the pet department, and it's also no surprise that pets make people happy. However, this is a bigger issue than just students missing their furry friends while away at school. Mental health conditions and stress run rampant through college campuses, and students need a good social support system in place for them to overcome these issues.
The typical age for a person to experience the onset of a mental health condition is 18 to 24, which is the common college age range. In addition, the National Health Institute reported that 75 percent of all people who experience an anxiety disorder will begin to see symptoms before the age of 22. College is already a stressful time, and adding the burden of a mental health condition makes this stress even more prevalent. The stigma of mental health issues in our society is not a good one either. Someone who is diagnosed with a mental disorder not only has to carry the burden of their disease, but they also have to deal with all of the possible negative stereotypes that others associate with their disease.
Not only can college lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety, but these increased levels of stress can cause many different health problems. Have you ever noticed that during your busiest times you seem to get really sick? Or that right after you turn in your last midterm, you can't seem to get out of bed because you feel so ill? This is because chronic stress can actually weaken your immune system. This chronic stress that young adults face can increase the levels of cortisol and other corticosteroids in the blood system which can result in anxiety, depression, sleep problems, high blood pressure, heart diseases and digestive problems over time. So, basically, college can lead to an increase of stress and anxiety levels which can lead to an increase of -- stress and anxiety? It's like a never ending cycle.
These problems that people face from chronic stress happen over an extended period of time. Just because your final is coming up and you are freaking out doesn't mean that you are going to have a heart attack and keel over, no matter how much it feels like that is exactly what is going to happen.
However, heart disease is a very prevalent problem in the United States, and the knowledge that it can stem from chronic stress is a very important finding to address. Reducing your stress now can very likely reduce the likelihood of developing a cardiovascular disease later. One proven way to reduce stress around you is by developing a solid social support system. This can include friends, family, and the community around you. Having someone that you can express your feelings and worries to, or even just a shoulder to cry on can greatly reduce the impact that stress has on your body.
Creating a positive social support system while in college, however, can be a challenge. This is a time in our lives when we want to have fun. This can lead our peers to encourage us to do something that is "exciting" instead of something that is beneficial to our mental state. For example, how many of your friends would suggest you have a heart to heart on a Friday night when you are complaining about the stresses in your life instead of a night out at the bar or a frat party? Yes, it is possible to find these types of supportive and meaningful relationships while in college, but for some people they are hard to come by.
This is where the pets come in. Did you know that pets can also be a source of social support as well? Think about it. After a long stressful day, you sit down on your couch and take a look at your cat and somehow you feel better as you begin to pet them. Or, say you've had an exceptionally bad day and are quietly crying in your bedroom, when all of a sudden you look up and see your dog softly padding into your room to come lick the tears from your face. It's a simple and quiet gesture but it makes you feel better. It is a companion that gives you no judgement or back talk. And this isn't just me being a crazy dog lady. A study actually found that owning a pet reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological stress responses in response to a psychological stressor. It seems like such a simple solution to students' issues to say that we all need to have a pet that we can bond with to reduce our stress, yet most colleges are still not allowing students to have pets other than a small fish in their room.
While some schools, such as mine, have "therapy dog days," they are very infrequent and usually in a room with a bunch of other students. You can't form a bond with these pets and they aren't yours. Even though events like these can help to decrease your stress from the day, having a pet to call your own while you're away from your family could greatly benefit your mental state. I think it's time that colleges allow students to bring pets to campus. I realize that not everyone has the time to care for animal at school, and for some it might even be an additional source of stress, but why not let students try? It's for the benefit of their health.