Mental Health Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

Updated on November 12, 2020

Approximately 51.5 million people living in America suffer from a mental health disorder. For such patients, treatments usually involve a combination of medication and therapy. While these treatments have been useful, doctors have begun prescribing emotional support animals (ESAs) for people with depression and specific phobias.

Understanding ESAs

There has been some controversy surrounding ESAs. A popular misconception has been that ESAs are an excuse for people to take their pets with them, even in establishments that are pet-free zones. What you should know is that ESAs are not pets.

An ESA is a domestic animal that is legally certified to act as a companion for an individual suffering from a mental illness. These animals should be toilet trained. However, unlike service animals, they do not receive special training to perform tasks.

Service animals support people with physical disabilities. In contrast, emotional support animals help people with mental illnesses. An ESA can be of any species, including birds or rodents. However, most people choose dogs or cats.

Two laws support having an ESA, namely:

  • The Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988- this law prevents discrimination when seeking housing. Also, it provides an exemption in dwellings with a no-pet policy.
  • The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)- This act enables individuals to travel with their ESAs in an aircraft

Positive Effects of Emotional Support Animals

1.     Help ease loneliness

According to a report released in January this year, about three out of five adults in America are lonely. The situation has become worse due to the lockdown measures meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. For people with fewer friends and those lacking social support, an emotional support animal can significantly benefit one’s mental health. These animals help keep you busy as you find new ways to interact with them through games or walks. They are good listeners and also provide comfort whenever you are feeling low.

2.     To reduce anxiety and panic attacks

For some people, traveling by air can be nerve wracking. Imagine if you had to go to a loved one’s funeral or travel for medical purposes but couldn’t due to extreme anxiety. An ESA helps individuals shift focus from the immense fear of planes to ensuring their ESA is comfortable. Also, if you suffer from panic attacks, carrying your ESA helps stabilize your heart rate and induce a calming effect.

3.     You become physically active

Having an emotional support dog or horse can help keep you active. Typically, if you are suffering from a disorder such as depression, you rarely want to get out of the house. Having a dog will motivate you to take them for strolls or even get back to your morning runs. People with comorbidities such as heart disease can benefit a lot. According to the American heart association, dog owners with heart problems experience a 65% reduction in death risk.

4.     ESAs help in the recovery process

The recovery process can be daunting, especially when feelings of hopelessness start to trickle in. Having an ESA creates a sense of purpose. You develop a need to protect and care for this animal. Remember, you need to feed them, take them to the vet, and develop a routine to ensure their wellbeing.

5.     ESAs help in building new relationships

If you’ve watched romcoms before, you may have noticed a scene where the main male character receives lots of compliments from women as he takes his dog for a stroll. Guess what! This incident occurs in real life, as well—an ESA helps to start conversations with strangers in the park, which may lead to long-lasting relationships.

6.     ESAs may improve students’ academic performance

Unlike high school, attaining a college education can be quite overwhelming, especially for people who have moved to a new state. Coupled with a mental disorder, the struggle to settle in may negatively impact your academic performance. Having an ESA in school can help motivate you by relieving stress and anxiety.

Qualifying for an Emotional Support Animal

To qualify for an ESA, you must receive a diagnosis of a mental health condition that requires an ESA from a licensed mental health doctor. Below are examples of qualifying disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

  • Cognitive disorders
  • Learning disorders
  • Agoraphobia
  • Substance use disorder

You also need to receive an emotional support animal letter from the psychiatrist. This letter will serve as proof when taking your ESA into a no-pet apartment or in an airplane. Here is a list of crucial information that should appear in your emotional support animal letter

  • Name of patient and doctor’s diagnosis
  • Confirmation that your disability limits you in performing specific daily tasks
  • An ESA is part of the treatment prescribed for your illness
  • The letter should show the current year’s date

For people with mental illnesses, performing daily tasks can be difficult. While there are various treatment options, an emotional support animal is a natural treatment that can speed up recovery. If you believe an ESA could help you recover, no need to suffer in silence. Reach out to a licensed therapist to receive an emotional support animal letter.

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