Never Underestimate the Influence of Animals on Mental Health

The connection between humans and animals, especially dogs, is one rooted in historical and cultural depth, stemming from the earliest uses of animals as a means of survival, transport, and sustenance, to (certain) animals evolving into valued members of our family.

Pets are a part of families all over the world, especially in the United States, where 77% of households own a dog or cat (Marx, 2014).

The value that many people place on the lives of their domestic animals is comparable to that of the love they have for their children. The strength of these relationships has become socially normalized in most of the world, and hey, who can blame them? Animals are the best. Don’t believe me? Check out Time’s list of the top 10 animals heroes, or watch the new season of Planet Earth.

The role that animals play in human lives is constantly changing, and the evolution of service animals has changed the lives of people with disabilities all over the world.

The newest role that has emerged is known as the emotional support animal, which has created a booming industry with obvious benefits, and some not as obvious issues. As said by Erin Ross:  "For many, animals provide a source of comfort and support that is different and in some ways deeper than what they receive from friends and family." (Ross, 2016).This can be said especially for the huge number of people dealing with mental health issues that impact their ability to socialize, work, or develop relationships.

The number of adults suffering from mental health issues in the US is extremely high. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 1 in 25 adults “experience a serious mental illness in a given year which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. In 2015, 18.1% of adults experienced an anxiety disorder like PTSD, and 6.9% dealt with a major depressive episode. Mental illness impacts youth in extremely high numbers, with 21.4% experiencing a serious mental illness between the ages of 13 and 18" (NAMI, 2016).

Unfortunately, despite its documented prevalence, treatment of mental health is nowhere near where it should be. Issues like stigmatization and a lack of funding mean that only around 41% of US adults and 50.6% of children aged 8-15 receive help for mental health conditions, leaving those in need of psychiatric and therapeutic help lost in patterns of homelessness, addiction, and imprisonment (NAMI, 2016).

  • If you are interested in learning more about mental health treatment, statistics, or ways that you can get involved, check out the resource section at the end of this article.

Besides psychiatric help, counseling, and medication, animals have been shown to improve the lives of those living with mental illness.

In Ross's recent NPR article, pet owners with mental illnesses discuss the ability of their animals to distract them from unhealthy thoughts and provide vital companionship. The responsibility that these individuals have for their pets might be able to reduce isolation, poor self care, and the potential for self harm or suicide (Ross, 2016).

Also, although still in the early years of research, there is growing scientific research on therapy animals, citing increases in oxytocin and reductions in blood pressure as several pieces of evidence of their benefits (Rovner, 2012).

These studies, as well as the personal stories of those with disabilities, show us that animals have a positive impact on their owners lives. Beyond pets, those with mental illnesses might benefit even more from the use of a licensed support animal. There are two options for potential animal support, emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs.

Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are classified as animals whose purpose is to “provide therapeutic benefit” to support the wellbeing of their owner (Wisch, 2015). They are not, however, trained to provide specific kinds of support, such as responding to panic attacks or alerting others if help is needed. ESAs are also not limited to dogs, and there seem to be few limits to the types of creatures some establishments will allow in after viewing a letter indicating emotional support verification.

  • See Patricia Marx's article, "Pets Allowed in The New Yorker", for a funny exploration of her experiences navigating restaurants, airplanes, and museums with a variety of outlandish emotional support animals."

Psychiatric Service Dogs are dogs which are trained to assist someone with psychiatric disabilities such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, or severe depression.The duties of these dogs include preventing self harm and guiding those with dissociative issues out of the path of moving vehicles; in other words, recognizing and responding to a psychiatric problem that the owner is experiencing. A Psychiatric Service Dog, like a service dog for physical disabilities, is protected under the ADA and is granted access to public spaces (Duffy, 2016).

So what does this all mean for someone with an Emotional Support Animal?

  • It means that legally, ESAs are not granted access to public places like restaurants, movie theatres, museums, yoga studios, nail salons, or the local swimming pool. An ESA is allowed on airlines, as dictated by the Air Carrier Access Act, and in housing which might does not generally permit animals (Duffy, 2016).

Exploiting the System

The line between “pet” and “service animal” has become blurred with the surge of emotional support animals, and the public privileges this classification allows for animals. The online industry for emotional support certification allows owners who are not likely in need of a support animal to slip through the system’s cracks. Obtaining this certification opens doors, literally and figuratively, for owners to bring their pets into public places which are unaware of the laws regarding emotional support animals.

This abuse and overuse of these certifications makes it more difficult for those with actual disabilities to use the resources available to them. Restaurants which have dealt with animals who have misbehaved, or who have felt forced into allowing ESAs onto their premises, may not respond as kindly to their next customer who has a Psychiatric Service Dog, or a dog for a physical disability. Those who truly rely on their animals for support may not be taken seriously when there are websites where a certification can be purchased for $50 after filling out a brief online survey.

Emotional Support Animals are a wonderful resource, and their use has the potential to change the lives of millions of children, teens, and adults with mental illnesses. Because the industry for ESAs is so new, it has problems which are beginning to become apparent. The abuse of certifications from those who may not truly need them can create an environment which is more difficult to navigate as a person with an actual disability or mental illness. Stricter regulations and better community education may reduce the overuse of these certifications, paving the way for a more organized industry to help those who need it.

Further Reading

Psychology Today - Mental Health Stigma

National Alliance on Mental Illness - Mental Health By the Numbers

National Institute of Mental Health - Statistics


7Cups of Tea - Free Online Counseling

Psychology Today - Find a Therapist

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1 (800) 273–8255

Works Cited

Ross, Erin. “Pets Help People Manage the Pain of Serious Mental Illness. NPR. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.

About the Author Adam

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