By: Alyssa Degler
I have an emotional support animal – not so I can bring my pet everywhere, but because I live with severe chronic depression. And I’m not the only one. There are hundreds of students at Elon living with a serious mental illness, fighting it every day. Emotional support animals (ESAs) are one way to make the fight easier.
There are many misconceptions around ESAs, suggesting they’re not “legitimate” or just an “excuse.” The truth is that they are often the last defense against giving up on the world. Here are three myths about ESAs and why ESAs are an important part of the mental health community.
First, ESAs are not an excuse to bring pets everywhere. Many people don’t know that ESAs are very different from service animals, both in purpose and privileges. Unlike service dogs, ESAs are only universally allowed in housing and on airplanes. That’s it. That means ESAs can’t go into classrooms, restaurants or stores, unless allowed by the owner specifically.
ESAs are allowed on airplanes for a good reason. Anxiety can be crippling. Crowded airports where everyone is rushing around is overwhelming (trust me). There is clear research that shows that just the presence of an animal can reduce daily anxiety, improve mood, and regulate stress hormones – and there is a lot of stress circling through the TSA check and terminals.
Which leads us to a second myth: emotional support animals are not just a want, but a need. The major difference between animals being a want (pet) versus being a need (ESA) is that an emotional support animal is a companion that provides their owner comfort and support to help with their disability, affecting their ability to function during their day – which is crucial for a college student.
Let’s be real, college students are put under constant pressure, with busy schedules and difficult classes – a perfect concoction for mental turmoil. For a college student that lives with a mental illness, this adds to their already daily fight.
In the United States, about 7% of the adults live with depression and over 18% have anxiety. For some, an animal can be the difference between going to class and dropping out of school.
ESAs are another form of support aid, like therapy, exercise, sometimes even on par with medication. Implementation of therapy dogs already show positive results regarding students and mental health. One research study showed strong immediate benefits, significantly reduced stress and increased happiness and energy levels for students who experienced therapy dog sessions.
Third, some people may think that emotional support animals don’t provide “real” benefits. You can’t observe people’s internal experiences – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology researched well-being differences between people who owned an animal versus people who didn’t, and the results support that owners are better off than non-owners. Owners specifically had greater self-esteem, greater fitness, and were more conscientious; they also tended to be less lonely and less fearful.
There are also tangible benefits that come from owning an ESA. Mood and stress are factors that impact cognitive performance, which concerns college students, especially when grades and graduation are on the line. Stress can make people shut down, often unable to complete assignments or go to class.
Taite Brown, a second-year undergraduate student, explains that her ESA helps her with these obstacles: “I used to never get [my project] done because I’d have an anxiety attack every time I went to do it.”
“Instead,” Brown explains, “I can pet Walle with one hand and type with the other and it works, it gets done.” And from my personal experience, there have been many days where if not for my dog, Banjo, I wouldn’t have made it to class.
And the benefits don’t end with the owner. In the therapy dog experiment, there was still significant increase in emotional wellness in the participants 10 hours after the short session. Students continued to report fewer negative emotions and stress, and stated they were feeling more supported.
Brown expresses that even people on her floor are affected by Walle: “Everybody finds him so beneficial, and they all love him.”
Finally, no one owes you proof or reason why they have an emotional support animal. Personally, I have to constantly prove to myself that my mental illness is valid. It’s exhausting to also defend myself to a stranger. Someone using the privileges of an ESA have sent documentation of a disability to the appropriate authorities. Don’t ask your airplane buddy or fellow student to prove their mental illness is sufficiently valid for you – they’ve been through it enough times already.
In our daily life, it may be hard to see the large impact emotional support animals have on people. But if we just zoom out a little, the picture becomes much more recognizable – a companion that gives meaningful and monumental support to anyone and everyone around them. ESAs are not an excuse, but a reason to keep trying. As Brown elegantly explains, “having something to take care of does the first step for you – of having a reason to get up.”
Mcconnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Martin, C. M., & Stayton, L. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e683152011-002
Ward, G. E., Klaiber, P., Collins, H. K., Owens, R. L., Coren, S., & Chen, F. S. (2018). Petting away pre‐exam stress: The effect of therapy dog sessions on student well‐being. Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 34(3), 468–473. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2804