Recently, some students around the country who find the stress and chaos of college overwhelming have been able to find sanctuary in the emotional support of “comfort animals.” Unlike a guide dog for a blind person or a service dog for someone with a physical disability, comfort animals do not need to be trained or distributed by an organization, or wear a vest to display their supportive role. The trouble is, there are actually quite a lot of students with anxiety and these animals are not held to the same standards as the service animals that many may confuse them with.
According to the Spring 2015 National College Health Assessment, a survey compiled of data collected by the American College Health Association between 2011 and the present, nearly 14 percent of college students suffer from depression and 22 percent suffer from anxiety. The volume of students suffering from anxiety alone has begun to place strain on campus mental health clinics around the country. A recent article by Jan Hoffman of The New York Times notes that at the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Florida, some supply closets have been converted into offices to accommodate the rapid increase in students seeking help handling their anxiety.
With clinical treatment for the growing issue being so difficult to adequately provide, it’s no surprise that many campuses are beginning to relax previously strict policies against animals and pets, allowing comfort animals in an effort to reduce the high rates of anxiety and depression among their student bodies.
While I’m certainly happy for any individuals that find solace in their animals and am glad to see a general shift toward openness to animals on campus, I have a few concerns about what the decrease in strict control of assistive animals could mean. My sister works with the organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization based in New York that raises future guide dogs, and I myself am in the (two-year) process of trying to acquire a service dog. So at least as far as dogs are concerned, I have some firsthand experience with how difficult it is to breed and raise dogs with the correct temperament to be companions. They need behavioral training and constant socialization from a young age, something that isn’t guaranteed when dealing with support animals. Since their role isn’t as defined, the potential for abuse in the system is higher.
Julian Pessier, the interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Stony Brook, said, “I’m glad to see universities becoming more open to them, they’re wonderful and the research supports them.”
While research into the effectiveness of Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) is still in its infancy, so far it seems to point towards being beneficial. My proposal is that for emotional support animals to be effectively introduced onto campuses nationwide, one of two options should be taken: either the standards for them must be raised to be along the lines of other types of service animals, or made so lax that having animals on campus basically requires no special permission from the university, as long as they’re in line with a code of conduct. Legitimate support animals would live alongside pets. Both would limit abuse and one would be much more fun, if a bit unrealistic.