Emotional Support Animals in College
An ESA, or emotional support animal, is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual suffering from a psychiatric disability.
Millions of Americans already rely on an ESA as a means of coping with the debilitating effects of mental illness and likewise, many college students are now opting out of pharmaceutical treatments in favor of four-legged therapy.
The fact of the matter is that an ESA can empower someone with a psychological disability to enjoy the same quality of life as others, and that should be the end of the issue, shouldn’t it?…
But sadly, it isn’t.
The New York Times recently published an article looking, with skepticism, at the prevalence of colleges in the United States allowing students with mental health issues to have their ESAs live with them on campus.
It caused quite a furor among readers of the Times, with comments ranging from the disapproving, to outright scathing attacks on students with mental health problems:
“Our nation is raising a generation of over-coddled weaklings who are going to get eaten in the real world.” – Seanathan, NY
In fact, the overall frothing at the mouth witnessed in the comments section led writer Jan Hoffman to publish a follow-up, ‘Emotional Support Animals: Readers Tough on Those in Need’.
Tough indeed, but do that many people really feel that disability-shaming these students was acceptable, or were they just trolling?
Do they even have a clue what they were talking about?
Crisis on Campus: The Real Story About Mental Health Issues Among College Students
When looking at the prevalence of mental illness among college students, it’s apparent that America’s mental health crisis extends to the country’s college campuses as well.
According to a 2014 National College Health Assessment, over 14 percent of college students have been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety, and over 12 percent have been diagnosed with or treated for depression.
The American College Health Association also reported that 46.4 percent of students had felt like things were hopeless at some point in the previous 12 months, 32.6 percent had felt so depressed at some point in the previous 12 months it was difficult to function and 8.1 percent had seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months.
A 2015 report published by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health with the support of over 280 university and college counseling centers describes similarly worrying facts and figures, with 32.6 percent of students surveyed answering that they’d taken a prescribed medicine for mental health concerns – 10.9 percent before and since starting college and 12.9 percent after starting college.
It’s also apparent that one of the most terrifying consequences of mental illness is more common on campus than people would like to believe, with an estimated 1,100 students committing suicide every year.
While it’s clear that some students are able to effectively manage their mental health, unfortunately, it isn’t that simple for everyone.
Moreover, when coping strategies don’t work, unchecked mental illness can drastically affect someone’s mental health.
When that happens, the person in question requires help, support and understanding, not lambasting for being a ‘weakling’ and telling someone who suffers from chronic stress or depression to just ‘cheer up’ is only trivializing their illness.
Why shouldn’t Emotional Support Animals be a part of the solution?
The evidence that ESAs can provide the same, or in some cases better, therapeutic benefit as prescription medications is plentiful.
Students can benefit both physically (the increase in activity levels an ESA brings – and not just dogs – increases endorphins and improves overall mood) and emotionally. An ESA offers a non-judgmental platform for a person to express his or her feelings and to be heard in a safe space, and after all, when did you ever hear a cat answer back and call their human a “weakling?”
The overall benefits of having an ESA on campus combine to produce an even more valuable support – an increased confidence that empowers a student living with mental and emotional disabilities on top of the regular stresses and strains of college life to enjoy the same opportunities and quality of life as their fellow students.
While therapy and medications are an option, treating a mental or emotional disability isn’t always so simple.
Psychotropic medications enable many people to live the fulfilling lives that might not be possible for them on their own, but of course different types of medication work differently for each individual. What makes one person’s life easier might have no effect on another.
Not only that , but the risk of some pretty horrible side effects and the length of time it can take for some medications to have an effect (if they have an effect at all) on a person’s illness, can make them unappealing in many respects.
Therapy can be extremely beneficial, and doesn’t have the risk of physical side effects that some psychotropic medication has, but when a student is awake at night in the distressing rip of a full-blown anxiety attack, heart pounding, chest tightening and unable to breath, their therapist isn’t there.
The solution to mental and emotional illness isn’t ‘one size fits all’, so if the ideal remedy for a college student is a combination of medication and/or therapy and an ESA. If any given treatment (in this case an ESA) effectively lessens the symptoms of a student’s disability, then who is anyone to tell them they don’t have the right to use it?
A recent court decision seems to affirm this.
The University of Nebraska recently lost a $140,000 lawsuit taken out by two students whose request to keep ESAs with them in their UNK apartment accommodation was denied. Not only did the settlement state that UNK must pay the students in question, but it also set out that the university violated the Fair Housing Act and must change its housing policy to allow students with psychological disabilities to keep animals with them if the animal provides therapeutic benefits to the student.
“This is an important settlement for students with disabilities not only at UNK but throughout the country,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “Assistance animals such as emotional support dogs can provide critical support and therapeutic benefits for persons with psychological disabilities. The Fair Housing Act requires that universities accommodate students who need such animals in order to have an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of university housing.”
While many college campuses don’t allow pets in their accommodation, this case could mean that American colleges will now have to accept the fact that ESAs are here to stay.
Is disability shaming really an acceptable way to react to the debate?
More and more students are recognizing the benefits of keeping an ESA with them on campus, and they absolutely have the right to do so.
It’s a shame (no pun intended) that an article written about ESAs can provoke such venom in so many people, and more than disappointing that a publication like the New York Times would stoop so low as to highlight the vitriol of its readers.
Those who choose to us ESAs as part or whole of their treatment for a psychological disability have a legal right to do so – and it’s unacceptable that their public image be tarnished by those who think people with depression and other mental illnesses should just ‘cheer up’.
Moreover, mocking the disabled, or minimizing their plight through the practice of disability-shaming casts a horrendous light on not only the ignorant people making those comments, but also on the journalists who attempt to promulgate such filth as “news.”
Emotional Support Animals have proven to be a viable form of mental healthcare, and it is a student’s legal right to keep an ESA, even in dormitory housing.
So, to all the haters:
Like it or not, Emotional Support Animals are here to stay.