A growing number of Ohio State students have emotional support animals this academic year, which helps them cope with diseases often linked to mental health.
ESAs’ functions are to relieve loneliness and help with depression, certain phobias and anxiety, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network.
“Both locally and nationally, the requests for ESAs are trending up,” Scott Lissner, ADA coordinator at Ohio State, said in an email.
However, it is unknown exactly how many Ohio State students have ESAs due to student enrollment at the university not being tracked and the two offices in charge of approving ESAs not sharing data, Lissner said.
The vast majority of ESAs are dogs, but cats can be registered as well. Lissner also said other species can be registered as ESAs, but it is challenging to get them approved as they usually do not all have standard vaccinations.
“Any student requesting a letter of support for an ESA must be in treatment with a medical professional,” said Shonali Raney, associate director of clinical services at Counseling and Consultation Services.
When assessing the qualification of an ESA, psychologists must confirm the individual has a diagnosis they feel rises to the level of disability, according to the ESA documentation laws. Psychologists must also explain how the animal helps the patient, along with the negative effects the person experiences when the animal is not with them.
Aurora Song, a fourth-year in journalism, said she used to suffer from depression. Tarzan, her emotional support dog, is officially registered as an ESA to help prevent her depression from returning.
Song said her dog serves as motivation to stay healthy and keep going whenever she begins to feel symptoms of her depression resurfacing, such as hopelessness.
Lissner also has to check health information about the animal to make sure its presence will not pose any health risk to the residential environment. Song said she didn’t know Ohio State provided ESA approval services, so she registered her dog online, which she said was an easy process.
“Most websites are not legitimate,” Lissner said. “I encourage students to work with their doctors for good referrals that will consider the whole of the student’s circumstances rather than narrowly prescribe.”
Students with ESAs can sometimes struggle to find living arrangements off campus that allow pets. However, the Fair Housing Act states that tenants cannot be discriminated against because of their disability — therefore the landlord is obligated to provide reasonable accommodation.
ESAs, which usually do not qualify as service animals, might qualify as a “reasonable accommodation,” meaning a no-pet rule or a pet deposit is waived because ESAs are not legally considered pets. Landlords are allowed to ask for proof of the animal’s ESA status, but cannot request documentation on the disability of the tenant, according to the ADA National Network website.
Research published in February in the research journal BMC Psychiatry concluded that people with mental health issues benefited positively from living with pets. However, further research is needed to know the nature and the extent of this relationship.