Emotional support animal increase on campus

Story by Ashley Traylor, Staff writer

According to a 2014 survey by American College Health Association and National College Health Assessment, 32.6 percent of students felt depressed and 54 percent had feelings of overwhelming anxiety.

Because of this, the need for emotional support animals – using an animal as a therapeutic way of coping with diagnoses of anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other emotional disorders – on campus is growing.

Associate director of Student Disability Services, Ken Ashlock, said at the Admitted Student Open House Feb. 7, the incoming freshman class had a lot of questions about it.

Student Disability Services director, Velvet Wilson, said she noticed the growth in need for emotional support animals within the past few years. She said when she moved to director in 2010, they had a couple of service animals on campus but not many emotional support animals.

Emotional support animals comfort their owners, Angie Trzepacz, director of University Counseling Services, said by providing physical intimacy by stroking, touching or warmth. For others, she said the animal is a friend and provides unconditional love.

People are becoming more aware of comfort animals being an option, but Trzepacz said she encourages students to exhaust other options first because emotional support animals can be challenging in residential colleges.

She said options include teaching social skills, behavioral activation and relaxation training, which includes deep breath breathing and guiding imagery practice. If students want to use the emotional support animal as a friend, she said, they will try teaching social skills.

Trzepacz said students find it helpful to go to the animal shelter and play with animals or to participate in pet therapy held in Curris Center. Stuffed animals can sometimes be soothing because they provide the same sense of touch, she said.

To distinguish between students wanting to bring their pet from home and students who need an emotional support animal to cope with emotional disorders, a university counselor will get to know the student, understand their symptoms and teach other coping mechanisms.

Trzepacz said it is a long process, so those who need an animal will go through the process, but it eliminates those who may want just to have a pet.

Ashlock and Wilson also meet with students who inquire about an emotional support animal.

During their meeting, they make sure the student knows the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal.

A service animal is an animal trained to perform a task. Ashlock said the most common type of animal is a seeing dog, but dogs are trained to work with diabetes and seizures, too.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulates what type of animal a service animal can be, which is a dog or a miniature horse.

While service animals are trained animals the student can take anywhere on campus, emotional support animals are an accommodation that are confined to their housing assignment.

The Fair Housing Act does not regulate what type of emotional support animal a student can have.

The office of Student Disability Services works closely with the Housing Department to make these accommodations for students.

Ashlock said students requesting an emotional support animal will meet with him and Wilson, and then the student is required to put together a request packet. The packet comprises a registration form for the office of Student Disability Services and a Reasonable Accommodations form for housing.

The student also needs documentation from a doctor, counselor or therapist.

Ashlock said then their request goes before a committee made up of individuals on campus, who makes the decision. He said it takes about a week, depending how quickly the student turns in all information.

Before their request is granted, Ashlock said the student’s roommate must agree to sharing a space with an emotional support animal.

“It is something that is growing and information is getting out there, so I would encourage any student that might want or think about that they need an emotional support animal, if they have a specific diagnosis, that they do come and talk to us and see, because we also have other accommodations and support things that help alleviate some of these things,” she said.

For students needing an emotional support animal for the Fall Semester 2017, the deadline is May 31, but the Office of Disability works with student throughout the year to make the accommodations.