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Anecdotes outweigh evidence discussion in NPR’s report on pets and severe mental illness

Rating

3 Star

Categories

Pets Help People Manage The Pain Of Serious Mental Illness

Our Review Summary

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The story focuses on a recent study published in BMC Psychiatry that reports some patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder consider their pets as part of their social network. The finding highlights the importance that some patients with mental illness place on pet ownership, and how some of those patients draw support from their interactions with pets and the routine of caring for their pets.

This story accurately describes the study, but — in our opinion — doesn’t go far enough in placing the work in context. For example, the headline uses strong language: “Pets help people manage the pain of serious mental illness.” However, that headline is based on the self-reporting of 25 patients in the United Kingdom who already own pets and consider them part of their social network. A small, observational study may be interesting, but it needs to be followed up with more robust research to figure out what role — if any — pets can play in treatment for patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The story needed to make that more clear.

 

Why This Matters

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder directly affect thousands of people in the U.S. each year, and indirectly affect the loved ones of patients who are dealing with these mental disorders. Treatment is a lifelong process, and these disorders can pose challenges for patients in terms of maintaining social ties with family and friends. Because these conditions do affect the quality of life for a great many people, stories about treatment options for people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can carry a lot of weight. Patients, or their loved ones, may jump at ideas for new forms of treatment.

That makes it particularly important for news stories on new research findings to place the work in context.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Costs aren’t addressed. There is the hint that it might be out of reach for some people with this quote in the story:

“He feels this study is important because, although there’s a lot of work looking at the benefits of trained therapy animals, they can be expensive and out of the reach of many patients.”

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not quantify the benefits associated with pet ownership for patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder–perhaps because the study being reported on doesn’t quantify benefits. But, in this case, where the benefits can’t be quantified, the story should tell us why that’s case (i.e. the researchers didn’t systematically measure the effects of pet ownership). What the story does instead is essentially present a series of anecdotes from people who are already benefiting from pet ownership, which isn’t reflective of the full range of experiences.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No harms are mentioned. It is important to recognize that the patients reporting positive influences of pets are having a good experience already. Giving a pet to someone with a major mental illness, who has not previously cared for an animal, could go very poorly without the right support systems in place.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story should have emphasized that this was a purely observational study of a small group of people, which means that it is difficult — if not impossible — to ascertain the value of pet ownership as a therapeutic practice based on these results.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering here.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The story clearly highlights one source’s role in the research and incorporates input from a second source who was not associated with the research.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story doesn’t mention other elements of treatment for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, such as therapy groups that encourage peer support, pharmaceutical or psychosocial interventions.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

We’re going to act under the assumption that readers are familiar with the idea of pet ownership.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

While not directly addressed, the story does hint at what’s novel about this new study–that the relationship between pets and people with severe mental illnesses hasn’t been researched with the same vigor as the benefits of trained therapy animals.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to be drawn primarily from a news release.

Total Score: 4 of 9 Satisfactory

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