What do you prescribe for a patient whose life seems unbearable?

A bear, of course, says Connecticut psychiatrist Paul C. Horton.

"Teddy bears are universal symbols of solace," says Horton, 40, whose "gentle prescription" for distraught children and adults is: One bear, hugged three times a day or as needed.

Solacing objects -- such as stuffed animals, security blankets, special music and cherished memories -- are "essential to mental health," Horton contends. "No matter what stage of life someone is in, they need at least one particular thing that offers them a special kind of psychic comfort. Very often depressed people are those who can't find solace."

Psychiatrists call these emotional shock absorbers "transitional objects," he says, because "they remind the person -- at least unconsciously -- of the maternal-like experience of being comforted by someone who loves you unconditionally. Learning to love the teddy bear helps the child separate from the mother and make the transition from loving her to loving another."

Nine out of 10 people rely on a solacing object, says Horton, who is researching the subject at the Child Guidance Clinic of Central Connecticut and last year published some of his findings in Solace: The Missing Dimension in Psychiatry.

These solacing objects, he says, "fall into one of three basic categories. First are the inanimate, tangible objects like teddy bears and special blankets. Then there are animate, tangible objects like pets or people. Finally, there are intra-psychic objects such as prayers, poems, music or ideas. These can be the most richly rewarding because they can't be destroyed and can be with you wherever you go."

While younger people tend to rely on "inanimate tangibles" and older people on "intra-psychic" solacers, he says, "the best condition to be in is to have some form of solace in all three. That way you don't have all of your solace eggs in one basket."

Just as Linus clutches his blanket in the dark pumpkin patch and Radar O'Reilly grabs his teddy bear when enemy shelling nears the M*A*S*H, he says, most people reach for their solacing objects in times of great stress.

This may explain why, in today's hard-times economy, the bear business is booming. "Clearly America is experiencing a new teddy bear awareness," reports the Smithsonian Institution News Service, citing the recent First Great Teddy Bear Rally in Philadelphia, which drew 25,000 people and "an undetermined number of bears" to its parades and "bear-care" clinics.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the economic crunch, toy stores are reporting a bear market. "Teddy bears are one of the few items in the industry that continue to be a best seller for adults and kids throughout the year," says Donna Datre of the Toy Manufacturers of America. Although stuffed Smurfs and other cuddly cuties threaten to horn in on teddy's turf, adds Donna Leccese of Playthings magazine, "the teddy bear is still number one."

This has been a "Beary Christmas" judging by catalogues filled with "bearaphernalia" -- from Teddy hot-water bottles to a real mink bear for $165--and greeting card publishers are calling this "The Year of the Teddy Bear." "Bear-only" stores such as the Boston-based Bear Necessities have been jammed with shoppers pawing over fashions by "Bierre Cardin," "polo bear" shirts (with a teddy in the alligator's place) and "Bear With Me" mugs. Opened five years ago by bear-loving entrepreneur Tim Atkins, Bear Necessities has spread to five cities, with its Bear-thday bears, Anni-Bear-sary bears and, of course, the ever popular Bear Mitzvah.

"Human interest in bears goes back thousands of years," says Horton, who calls bears "the archetypal maternal symbol. There are lots of features of the bear that recall the mother -- softness, warmth, the gentle sparkle in the eye. American Indians were tremendously invested in bear worship, and they were recognized as a maternal symbol in ancient Greece and Rome.

"Bears combine an ideal blend of comforting and scary aspects that seem to permit the person to work out internal conflicts. Aggression and sexuality get acted out in a muted, controlled way through the bear. You can throw it against the wall, hit your brother or sister with it or cuddle it."

The classic tale of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" has been viewed as an allegory for the bear's importance in helping a child establish an identity. "The whole issue revolves around the little girl finding what is comfortable for her," Horton says. "In the bears' house some things were too hot, others too cold and some just right. Goldilocks felt the baby bear and momma bear were safe, but wasn't so sure about the pappa bear. That's something many children can identify with."

Horton's studies have illustrated a striking human-bear attraction. Out of all the objects that surround them, 97 percent of children choose one comforting "preferred object" within their first two to three years -- although this is "largely unrecognized by most parents." Stuffed animals are the most frequently chosen "preferred objects," selected by 40 percent of these children. Of that group, 60 percent picked teddy bears. (Blankets came in second, picked by 30 percent, followed by music--tunes, boxes or lullabies--picked by 11 percent.)

The child-teddy relationship is "most intense," Horton says, "between the ages of 4 to 6 when conflicts -- such as those with siblings or parents -- may peak. By age 10 most kids have had important relationships with around nine solacing objects. In the average third- or fourth-grade class, 25 percent have a stuffed creature in their desk."

Adolescents tend to move on to more socially accepted solacing objects such as guitars, records or friends. But stuffed animals aren't altogether "out" for youngsters. In one college study, 80 percent of female students had one or more stuffed animals in their rooms, while 40 percent of male students had one in their room or car.

Adults often choose items given to them by a beloved person as their solacing object. But "the most important solacing object for most adults," he says, "is another special person." Other popular adult comforters include: literature, music, public service activities, collectibles and religious ideas.

"Look around the office," he says. "People tend to bring in objects for comfort. Women are much more comfortable with this than men. Men tend to bring their objects to their tool room or car."

Although some adults turn to alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs, Horton calls these "abortive solacers" because they "chemically alter the body" and have "great abusive potential." Teddy bears and other positive solacers could be abused, too, he admits, if "they are used as substitutes for the real world. But with 95 percent of the population that doesn't happen."

Not only are solacing objects "essential," he claims, but lack of them could be disastrous. In his study of 20 "well-defined psychopaths," he says, "none had any solacing objects in the past or present. In the control group, more than 90 percent had readily recalled solacing objects."

Loss of a crucial solacing object can be fatal. "Look at all the times where an elderly person loses a mate or pet," he says, "then dies."

Horton first began studying solacing objects about 10 years ago, after observing "those people who are able to find satisfaction through internal religous experience. The people who have died best are those who have an unchallenged intra-psychic sense of comfort. That experience seemed to represent an endpoint on a continuum of experience with other solacing things like poetry or music or stuffed animals.

"The need for solace is part of a life-long developmental process. The object -- be it a teddy bear for a child or music for an adult -- is a psychological catalyst for growth. It opens inner doors, provides psychological continuity and a sense of renewal."

People who feel their lives are empty and meaningless, he says, "might look back over their own life and recall the sequence of objects that were profoundly solacing to them along the way. That way, they may get a feeling for what they may need now."

In his psychiatry practice, Horton says, "One of the greatest challenges is identifying and creating vehicles for solace. Particularly important is the recognition that soothing vehicles in the first half of life -- until youth ends around age 34 -- normally facilitate an acceptance of life, whereas vehicles for solace in the second half of life to help make dying a meaningful and even welcome experience.