We are all familiar with service animals that are trained to provide help for their owners in a variety of different ways. Service animals can be trained to lead a blind person, support the head of someone having a seizure, or detect an imminent panic attack, among other tasks. However, new on the scene are emotional-support animals (ESA) that provide emotional support to students on a college campus suffering with a mental illness, i.e., depression or anxiety. The animal is not specifically trained (as would be a service animal) to give emotional support, which can lead to such an animal being indistinguishable from a regular pet. Inasmuch as the number of college students with clinical depression or anxiety is today rising, ESAs are becoming more common on campuses.
As a result of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which describes a service animal as one that is trained to perform a task its owner can’t, schools have formulated and implemented a clear policy pertaining to the use and housing of service animals on college campuses. However, the use of ESAs (as reported in a January 23, 2019 Philadelphia Inquirer article in The Region section) is a more recent development, and there is less of a clear-cut policy defining the use of an emotional-support animal. At the moment, permission for having an ESA in campus housing is granted based on a letter from a medical provider explaining that the person requesting an ESA has a diagnosed mental illness and that an animal is necessary to help this person cope. Unfortunately, a problem arises when students feign mental health issues in order to obtain permission to have their favorite pet accompany them to college. This is a kink that needs to be worked out, and may prevent a doctor from writing the necessary letter. This all being said, there are other avenues to take in order to get the needed letter that will allow someone with a mental illness to bring an ESA to campus. If you can not get your doctor to write the required letter, there is an organization called CertaPet (that is but one of a number of such organizations) that is able to certify the need for an ESA after conducting a clinical assessment by phone with a person who is requesting emotional support.
There is plenty of research that has been conducted in the field of ESAs, but little of this research proves the if, how, or why an ESA works. There were a number of students who were interviewed for the Inquirer article giving glowing reports on the benefits of having an ESA, but all the data received was anecdotal information. Molly Crossman, a researcher at Yale who focuses on human-animal interaction, is cited in the Inquirer article as noting that research has been limited to short-term interactions which does not give a full picture of the benefits of an ESA. It seems as though the final chapter has yet to be written on the benefits of an ESA, but nothing appears to suggest that ESAs do not serve a helpful purpose.