An emotional-support animal is comfort. At the end of my 12-hour days, coming home to my cat, Zip, is not only calming, but vital to my well-being and high-level functioning. He isn’t just a cat — he can keep me grounded through a panic attack or flashback with his presence. I am a student with an emotional-support animal, as are many other students at Binghamton University. We should not be required to justify our mental health to anyone.
No one can contest the fact that college is highly stressful. Each student has their way of handling this turmoil, often finding social support among friends and family. But what if this student does not have this type of support in human form, but rather, in an animal?
Obtaining an emotional-support animal is not a matter that the University takes lightly. While I agree with Kristen DiPietra that those who lie about having a mental health condition shouldn’t be granted emotional-support animals, the system makes this highly unlikely.
I spoke with Jeremy Pelletier, assistant director of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), to find out more about this process. A clinician who knows the student well must fill out a detailed report specifying why the emotional-support animal would be beneficial to the student’s health and if they would be an appropriate caregiver for a pet. The student must write a lengthy report detailing why they need the animal and their specific plans for caring for it.
Both of these reports must undergo rigorous review by a committee through SSD, a process that can take months. If the student is mentally stable enough to wait for their request to be processed, then they and their animal are granted the right to be on campus.
One BU student who has a support animal stated, “When you’re alone and you’re in those dark places, it’s hard to convince yourself that the reasons why you should get out of bed are worth the effort … the day I got Morrison I felt alive again. He gave me purpose … we are a team.”
DiPietra brings up the issue of noisy or disturbing animals. If a student is approved to have an emotional-support animal, they must attend several meetings with SSD outlining the attached rules: the animal isn’t allowed outside of the owner’s living space, the property needs to be protected and the animal must be calm, quiet and well-behaved. The student’s roommates must provide their consent before the animal is allowed on campus. If any complaints occur, the student and animal are relocated.
DiPietra also states that the presence of emotional-support animals “compromise[s] the health, safety and peace of mind of other students,” yet when therapy dogs are brought to campus during finals week, countless students over-pack these events to relieve their stress.
Challenging the right of a student to have an emotional-support animal questions that person’s right to take care of their own mental health. In fact, such questioning violates the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act, to protect against the discrimination of those with disabilities, including “invisible disabilities,” including anxiety and depression, the most common mental illnesses on a college campus.
According to the American Psychological Association, respondents in the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers stated that 52 percent of their clients had “severe psychological problems,” an 8 percent increase from 2013.
DiPietra does not stop there — she states, “If a student believes they cannot function without an emotional-support animal that is not a service dog, they might have to re-evaluate their mental health situation.” It is worth noting here that in order to even be considered for an emotional-support animal, a student must be under the care of a mental health professional.
Ignorant statements, such as DiPietra’s, contribute to students’ fear of seeking help for their mental illness for fear of being stigmatized. We should never bash our students for having needs. Denying someone an emotional-support animal is akin to denying an inhaler to someone with asthma or hearing aids for those who have difficulty hearing.
Rather, we should be highlighting their bravery and commending the hard work that it can take to live each day. And if the presence of an animal helps, then it isn’t our place to judge or question.
Kara Bilello is a junior double-majoring in English and Spanish.