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College students turn to emotional support animals to aid mental health

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Courtesy of Caitlin Hicks. Photo by Emilia Stuart.
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Every day, when graduate student Caitlin Hicks comes home to her apartment, the first thing she hears is the barking of Theo, her Pomeranian and her emotional support animal. Theo’s barking may be too loud or annoying for some, but for Caitlin, this is a comforting reminder that she is not alone. She describes it as like having another life force in the room.

“I would say like a year ago I went through many months of like long-term dissociation and he was just really helpful for grounding me back in reality,” Hicks said. “because when it's just you in an apartment… you can't be convinced anything's real. You can do all the grounding techniques you want, but still the only thing you can trust is yourself. So having him here, I'm like, okay, great. I can trust him.”

Hicks is a student at the University of Alabama, where more and more of her classmates are getting emotional support animals like Theo. According to the housing administration on campus, the number of students asking for emotional support animals in dorms has nearly doubled since 2019. Housing received 36 requests that year, and 70 in 2021.Other schools are seeing similar trends, with the University of Arizona reportedly seeing an all-time high with over seventy emotional support animals in on-campus dorms.

Hicks got Theo approved as an emotional support animal through her therapist in 2015, and that validation has allowed him to live with her in all of her college apartments. Hicks says that approval also helped her avoid hundreds of dollars in pet fees, but she says the biggest payback was how Theo helps her calm down after a long day of classes.

“When you're on campus all day and you're stressed and you have all this work that you're doing and then coming home and immediately feeling joy because like your pet is there to greet you,” Hicks said. “just the immediate help with stress and comfort… has just been extremely helpful as a student.”

Alicia Browne is the director of Housing Administration at UA. She says the process for getting approval in the dorms is going through a medical provider that writes a recommendation and answering questions about the animal. Housing then approves animals that meet qualifications. Approved emotional support animals can live in all dorms, but entry into campus buildings is not permitted because emotional support animals are technically not service animals.

“A service dog is trained specifically to do work or tasks, so a seeing eye dog, a dog that alerts a diabetic to a drop in blood sugar,” Browne said. “A service dog is required by an individual because of a disability and it is trained to do specific tasks. An emotional support animal is there for comfort support. It may lessen anxiety, but it is not necessarily trained to do any type of work. And so they are different and legally they're protected by different laws.”

The law that allows emotional support animals in on-campus dorms and apartments is the Fair Housing Act. It states that Americans can keep these animals if they are approved by a medical professional regardless of the residential facility’s policy on pets.

Dr. Patricia Pendry is a professor of human development at Washington State University. She has been studying animal-human relations for years and said that her research supports that animals can help reduce stress.

“We found that a mere 10 minutes of interacting with either a dog or a cat led to a reduction of a stress hormone called cortisol,” Pendry said. “and this reduction was significant… So we felt that this was a good, rational reason to say that petting and interacting with a dog or a cat would reduce stress.”

This data was published in a study Pendry conducted in 2019 of college students interacting with animals. She says that the study targeted college students because that age group seems to experience a lot of stress, and that the nationwide decline in mental health among college students is likely a big reason why requests for emotional support animals have increased at UA and elsewhere.

Pendry also said that in these situations, the animal’s well-being needed to be taken into consideration.

“There's this notion that, okay, we have to expand this as much as we can. We have to extend the treatment times of the interaction times we have to bring animals onto campus more often,” Pendry said. “And I think we need to be mindful. It's always a good idea to replicate research. It's also a good idea to kind of look at what scaling up of these interventions might change about the interaction, particularly for the wellbeing of the animals.”

Hicks said she sees the increase in emotional support animals as a response to the pandemic.

“Obviously like the pandemic rocked to everybody's world,” Hicks said. “and so, you know, anxiety, depression, mental illness is up so high, like needing emotional support animals is probably something that is more appealing to people because like they need that comfort and they need that assistance.”

Hicks says she will soon move to Atlanta, Georgia and Theo is coming with her. She says that while the future makes her nervous, she knows she’ll always have Theo to keep her calm.

Lacey Alexander is a digital intern for Alabama Public Radio.
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