Written by Alyssa Wilson ~ Editor-in-Chief
Photo of cat and dog. Photo retrieved from www.istock.com
Furry friends like cats and dogs are known to be good for one’s mental health and emotional regulation, especially college students. In many cases, students may depend on an animal to help them in their day-to-day life.
Students at the University of Lynchburg are able to have an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) if their needs qualify them for one and they are approved by both Housing and Residence Life and the Center for Accessibility and Disability Resource Center.
ESAs can be an important tool for students experiencing anxiety, depression, phobias, PTSD and more. Having an animal can help to alleviate symptoms and regulate a students’ nervous system and emotions.
Senior, Julia Rod has had her cat, Ponyo registered as an ESA with the university and this is her second full year with an ESA.
“For me it mainly helps my depression because I have to get up in the morning and feed her and take care of her. Getting up in the morning and having to take care of something else makes me take care of myself,” says Rod.
Rod also mentions how petting her cat helps to regulate her sensory issues, as touching the cat’s soft fur helps to ease her emotions and sensory dysfunction in times of stress.
Courtney Kelsey, director of Housing and Residence Life notes the stark difference between ESAs and service animals, which she says people often mix up.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as “any dog that is 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.”
The ADA certifies service animals with specialized training to assist their owners, whereas ESAs do not go through training and are simply there for emotional support, as the name suggests.
In order to register for an ESA, students must first express interest in the registration process before their request is reviewed by an ESA panel made up of staff members from the Health and Counseling Center, Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources and Housing and Residence Life.
Students must submit paperwork from a healthcare provider stating that they would benefit from an ESA due to any cognitive or mental health challenges they may experience. They must be working with this provider for at least three months prior to request for registration.
Initially obtaining information for ESA registration was easy and straightforward, says Rod.
However, “The language in the forms and paperworks itself is hard to understand and the information they asked for was just redundant,” she continues.
Rod says she has had some communication issues with the Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources and has had to refill several forms pertaining to her ESA.
For example, two google forms were sent to Rod to complete; approved ESA registration form and approved animal caretaker contacts form that had a majority of repeated questions.
Many students dislike the repetitive and often complicated process of registering for an ESA, but Kelsey says this just insures that pets and students stay safe.
Director of the Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources, Julia Timmons says, “The University does not allow pets on campus, thus the student must meet the standard for having an ESA. This process is demanding, as is the responsibility of owning an animal, especially in a community living environment such as university housing.”
If a student is caught with an unregistered animal in their residence, then housing and residence life will suggest that the student rehome or relocate the animal, whether they have a friend or family member pick up the animal, or they give the animal up to the Humane Society.
However, despite campus rumors, no university faculty or staff member will forcibly take an animal from a resident and take it to the animal shelter.
Being caught with a policy violation does not terminate a student from going through the registration process, as long as they are cooperative.
There are some barriers in place for some students when it comes to registering for an ESA.
Not all students have health insurance or access to a healthcare provider that is able to give final permission for an ESA.
The Spiritual Life Center has a fund that can assist students with healthcare costs, if they need it. So if a student feels that they would strongly benefit from an ESA but does not have a healthcare provider, they can possibly make contact with one through the SLC.
Students can still stay connected with animals and receive emotional benefits by attending Doggies on the Dell, which happens once per semester.
Students can also volunteer at the local humane society and spend time with cats and dogs who are still waiting for their forever homes.
All information about policy and procedures pertaining to ESAs and service animals can be found here.