Emotional support animals on-campus double as mental health diagnoses increase nationally


Jakob Menendez

Kyle Eber, President of Emerson Mystic, with his cat Tetra.

By Carlee Bronkema, Staff Reporter

Junior Grayson Pitt said his emotional support animal, Credence, prompts him to take care of himself and begin other tasks for the day—his gecko’s dependence on him is soothing. 

“Once I take care of her, I start getting the motivation to do self-care-related things, and then move on to things that are school- and academic- related,” Pitt said in an interview. “She’s a very encouraging force for me because I know she needs me, and that’s very comforting to me.”

There are currently 14 emotional support animals on the college’s campus this semester, doubling the number from the 2017-18 academic year, according to a college official. This increase coincides with a study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association of 155,000 students on 196 college campuses showing an increase in mental health diagnoses from 22 percent to 36 percent between 2007 and 2017. The study also found that treatment increased from 19 percent to 34 percent, regarding therapy and medication use. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines an ESA as an animal that provides emotional support to reduce the symptoms of a person’s disability. 

Director of Student Accessibility Services Diane Paxton said the college is aware of the benefits that ESAs provide, and the office is happy to let students have them if they go through the process.

“It hasn’t always been that you could get an ESA at colleges nationwide,” Paxton said in an interview. ”It is a trend that’s happening more and more, so things are opening up and now students can have animals that really do support them.”

The process requires Student Accessibility Services and the Office of Housing and Residential Education to work together to approve student requests for ESAs.

Students must submit an application to Student Accessibility Services to receive permission to have an ESA on campus. After individuals fill out the Housing Accommodation Request Based on Disability form, Student Accessibility Services consults with several offices on campus, including Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services, the Center for Health and Wellness, and the Office of Student Affairs about the student. 

The college requires students to provide documentation from a licensed mental health professional which includes detailed information such as their symptoms, medication effects, and medical history.  

Students then have to meet with a staff member at SAS or schedule a phone interview to discuss their disability and reasons for needing an ESA. 

Junior Kyle Eber lives in the Colonial residence hall with his ESA, Tetra, a four-year-old, hypoallergenic cat. He explained that his interview to apply for an ESA took place over the phone as he was not yet a student at the college. Eber had to talk to an SAS staff member in detail about his mental illness, which he said he was not expecting.

“It was a little bit triggering,” Eber said in an interview. “It is not a fun conversation, but it’s a necessary conversation so the office can differentiate, ‘Is this person trying to bring a pet in, or do they really need an ESA?’”

Paxton said SAS then reviews information with ECAPS, taking into consideration what the student does for self-care and what the consequences will be if the request is denied. 

Next, SAS works with the Office of Housing and Residence Education to see if the appropriate housing accommodations can be made. The deadline for returning students is Nov. 1 for the spring semester and Feb. 7 for the fall 2020 semester so housing can be assigned with the ESA in mind. 

Once approved, students are expected to communicate with their roommates. OHRE will assist if there are any complications or conflicts, such as allergies or a fear of the ESA.

‘When you have an animal in your room, it sort of ‘outs’ you,” Paxton said. “They need to be aware that people will say, ‘Why is it that you get to have a guinea pig?’ And you have to find something to answer with.”

Eber said he has been known as ‘Kyle with the cat’ since people have found out about Tetra.

“A lot of people come up to me and ask me, ‘How can I get my dog on campus?’” Eber said. “People have different accommodations and family situations and I never judge, but it is a conversation where people view me and Tetra as someone who beat the system and got their cat on campus.”

Both Eber and Paxton said they felt frustration with those who didn’t realize that ESAs are not just pets that a student wants with them, but instead serve a purpose for each person who has them.

Eber said there were some logistical concerns in the beginning, such as paying for cat food and adjusting her to the space. 

Tetra also suffers from epilepsy and has seizures occasionally, for which Eber gives her medication daily.

“That’s really why we work as an ESA pair because I also need to take daily medication,” Eber said. “So I can’t take my medication, I tell myself, until my cat has it. So everyone is getting the medication on a cycle.”