Emotional Support Animals are becoming a common sight on college campuses, accompanying the increase of students seeking help for mental health problems. The American Psychology Association states that counseling centers have seen increases in anxiety disorders and clients with severe psychological problems in the past four years. But maybe furry friends can help improve mental health and overall mood.
In a 2018 article, C.W. Von Bergen, Ph.D., of Southwestern Oklahoma State University, said on emotional support animals and pets on campus that animals can influence human wellbeing positively, leading to physiological, psychological and emotional benefits. Humans have interest in pet companions and ownership of them requires us to socialize, exercise and fulfill simple responsibilities in order to keep them happy, but many colleges seem reluctant to set a precedent for animals on campus, citing that campuses would resemble “zoos rather than learning communities.”
With help from a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, students can prove their need for ESAs by acquiring a letter from their mental health provider and getting their animal registered with student housing. After this process, ESAs are allowed in situations normal pets are not, in order to comfort the patient.
“A person that would benefit from an Emotional Support Animals would likely be one with some communications or social deficits and who has limited social supports. Individuals with depressive disorders could also benefit,” said Ryan Talley, a psychologist at Hall and Associates in Lawrence.
While universities attempt to accommodate the needs of these students, there could potentially be conflict with other residents due to the nature of living with an animal. The University of Kansas policy describes the following limitations of support animals being allowed on campus.
“The University may exclude a service or assistance animal if the animal is not housebroken; would pose a direct threat to the health, safety, or property of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by a reasonable accommodation; is out of control and the individual does not take effective action to control it; would fundamentally alter the nature of a program or activity; or is not being cared for the by the individual.”
Along with the advantages of ESAs come some noteworthy disadvantages. Becoming an Emotional Support Animal doesn’t require any specific training. Lea Ann Shearer, Executive Director for Paws for Freedom Inc., a Service Dog training company, said Service Dogs are intended to be unobtrusive, attracting little attention.
“Service dogs for people who use wheelchairs, as well as facility therapy dogs, need a low-key, amiable, ‘go with the flow’ temperament,” Shearer said. “This allows them to adapt as they go from one environment to another, such as going from home, to work, to a restaurant to meet friends, often on a daily basis. Due to their training, they are able to recognize when it is time to lay quietly on the floor and/or take a nap when their person is working, attending class, etc.”
Due to training not being a requirement of their registration, ESAs may bark, sniff, be disruptive and exhibit other distracting behavior. The University of Kansas’ Animals in Buildings policy states that ESAs can be allowed in student housing if there is a documented disability, the animal is necessary for equal opportunities in student housing, and if there is a relationship between the disability and the assistance the animal provides, such as if their companionship relieves anxiety or depression.
Even though Student Housing makes arrangements for these animals, there is some controversy regarding students falsifying information in order to keep their pets close by when changing residences. A 2017 article by Regina Schoenfeld-Tacher, Peter Hellyer, Louana Cheung and Lori Kogan about public perceptions of different types of working dogs address public perceptions of service, emotional support and therapy dogs. They write that the undefined roles of support animals may encourage fraud because policies are unclear.
While emotional support animals with fraudulent credentials aren’t as prevalent as false service dogs, they may falsely represent animals adequately doing their jobs. This can be paralleled by issues surrounding service dogs. According to Delta Airlines, Delta has seen an 84 percent increase in animal-related incidents.
“The issue of fraudulent service dogs is a growing concern in the service dog industry,” Shearer said. “Since people can opt to buy an ID badge and cape online, put the cape on the pet dog and take him out in public, it jeopardizes the overall reputation of well trained dogs that come from programs.”
Those looking to get their animals approved by housing can buy letters from therapists online to register ESAs for as little as $35 and in as quickly as 24 hours. This practice is different from the one Talley uses and recommends to assess patient needs for ESAs.
“The individual would need to have been given a formal diagnosis from a licensed professional to demonstrate that a therapeutic need exists in the first place. After that, a clinical interview would likely follow to determine why and how a support animal would address those needs,” Talley said.
The benefits of animal companionship can seem obvious, but it can be difficult to adjust to animals in professional and academic life. But the increasing number of ESAs can be seen as an indicator of the changing the way mental health is addressed in more open and upfront ways than in the past.