Students seek solace in furry friends on campus: The rising number of ESA’s at Murray State

Story by Emily Williams, Features Editor

According to activeminds.org, more than 80 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelmed with all of their responsibilities in the past year, and 45 percent have experienced feelings of hopelessness. According to the site, mental health issues within the college student population, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, are associated with lower GPAs and higher probabilities of dropping out of college altogether. Almost one-third of all college students reported feeling so depressed that they had trouble functioning.

With anxiety being such a prevalent issue among millennials and college students specifically, the search for relief and support has brought about the need for a furry companion, for some. These animals are commonly known as emotional support animals, or ESA’s. According to adata.org, ESA’s provide companionship, relieve loneliness and help with depression, anxiety and phobias.

Ken Ashlock, associate director at the Office of Student Disability Services, said there are approximately 30 students who have registered ESA’s at Murray State. This does not include the very small percentage of students at Murray State who have a registered service animal.

According to adata.org, service animals differ from ESA’s in that they are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.

Velvet Wilson, director at the Office of Student Disability Services, said the policy for service animals and emotional support animals does not come directly from Murray State but rather from Title II of The American With Disabilities Act, as well as The Fair Housing Act of 1988.

“Emotional support animals are used for mitigating symptoms of a mental health issue,” Wilson said. “It helps comfort the individual, not necessarily performing a work or task for that individual, but it does help mitigate some of the symptoms they might be experiencing because of that mental health condition. It helps them live more comfortably and successfully.”

Kelsey Ross, senior from Paducah, Kentucky, said she suffers from moderately severe social phobia, general anxiety and depression. She has owned her dog Viper, who serves as an emotional support animal for her, since June of this year. She said Viper is a great icebreaker in social situations because people will often initiate conversations about her dog, and it’s a way for her to ease into having a conversation with others.

“When you have anxiety like I do, it makes everything so much harder,” Ross said. “You feel like you can’t breathe and everyone is staring at you and judging you all day everyday. Viper is always there to distract me and remind me to take a deep breath and keep going.”

Ross said the past year of her life has been very tough after losing two of her three grandparents and her dog of ten years. She said she found herself hardly getting out of bed, even to do what she loves the most: riding her dearly loved horses.

“I knew I had to do something, and medications only help so much,” Ross said. “They ease it and take the edge off, but you still have to learn to cope, and Viper helps me so much.”

Ross says she will often take Viper to class with her on Murray State’s campus, but she feels as though her professors are skeptical as to whether or not Viper is really an ESA.

Laura Beckers, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, said she expects students to ask permission before bringing a dog or cat to class, but she always allows them to do so after they ask.

“My general rule is that as long as the ESA is not disturbing students in the classroom, they are welcome to stay,” Beckers said. “If the dog or cat becomes disruptive, then I would ask that they be left at home. Personally, I like seeing non-human animals in the classroom because I believe it softens the environment and makes it a more informal space. For my style of teaching, I like to have a casual, informal, and open learning environment.”

Beckers said that while she is tolerant of animals within the lecture hall, the same does not necessarily go for a lab setting.

“I would not feel comfortable having an ESA in a lab where students are dissecting specimens as sharp instruments would be in use, and if the dog/cat made an unexpected move or sound, it could cause harm to a student,” Beckers said. “Furthermore, there are often chemicals in labs that would be dangerous to animals. I guess my bottom line would be ‘dogs in the lecture halls are fine, but let’s not bring them to the lab’.”

Wilson said students who are seeking information about service animals or emotional support animals should contact the Office of Student Disability Services.