Many college students may want to bring their pets to campus, but some students can if those pets are registered for emotional support. In 2012, Elon approved the first ever emotional support animal to live on campus. Five years later, 60 students have emotional support animals registered.
Senior Bethany Beckham chose to adopt her emotional support dog almost two years ago, when she had reached a breaking point.
“I was kinda getting to the point where anxiety was debilitating and there were some days where I couldn’t leave my room,” Beckham said.
Beckham’s dog Leo, named after President Leo Lambert, helps her with her severe anxiety.
“He can sense the emotion and he sometimes will put his paw on me or put his head on my lap, or he just curls up to me,” Beckham said.
According to the American Psychological Association, emotional support animals are recognized legally as reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities that substantially limit one or more major life activities.
They aren’t service animals because they haven’t been trained to do a specific job or task, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Beckham says that even without training, Leo is still a great comfort
“Anxiety tends to show up in one area of your body, like one specific tension area, and for me it’s my chest and I have trouble breathing,” she said. “He puts his head on my chest and just puts weight on that, which is really nice.”
Bilal Ghandour, a psychology professor and counselor, has worked with multiple patients with emotional support animals. He says they can be helpful for multiple mental illnesses.
“Individuals who are depressed can definitely benefit from the presence of a creature who’s not going to demand anything from them but can be there all the time,” he said.
But he worries that these animals can sometimes be inhibitors rather than helpers.
“People start relying on the animal too frequently and so they lose their ability to sort of cope on their own,” Ghandour said. “The dog becomes everything. They’re no longer capable of handling things on their own.”
For this reason, Ghandour sometimes denies patients’ requests for emotional support animals when he feels its in their best interests. He also worries about students falsely registering emotional support animals just so they can have a pet on campus–a problem that’s already happening on a national level.
Some commercial companies like The National Service Animal Registry, Dogtor and others sell emotional support animal certification letters, without a licensed mental health professional seeing the individual or their pet in person.
According to the APA, The National Service Animal Registry registered 11,000 animals online in 2013.
The site claims their services are “aimed only at providing legitimately disabled persons with identification and products to minimize hassles and discrimination.”
A process so easy that with a click of a button, a reporter from WJLA in Washington, D.C. was able to register a stuffed dog as an emotional support animal.
These companies aren’t screened by the government, and neither are the people who apply.
Beckham says people already question the validity of her emotional support dog.
“I tell them I have a dog on campus and they’re like ‘oh, emotional support’ I’m like ‘no, but like really.’ Like I actually do have anxiety. And they’ll be like ‘oh, sorry, my friend just faked it,’” she said.
Caroline Dean, an apartment manager in the Station at Mill Point, says that falsely registering these animals could have bigger consequences.
“My biggest concern is just that students who need access to those resources won’t be able to because of the actions of those who are just kind of working the system,” Dean said.
Dean says Residence Life staff doesn’t receive any training for working with emotional support animals, but hopes they will in the future to better support students.
“We wanna respect those students and not just say that, you know, the things that you need this animal for, everybody needs animals for, because that’s not true,” she said.
Beckham says people don’t understand what these animals mean for those who need them, but she hopes that will change.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize that, but it’s hard when this illness is separating you from the world,” she said. “I can’t even put into words how comforting it is to know you always have another creature there no matter what.”