An increasing number of students around the country are treating men- tal health disabilities with emotional support animals. This trend is evident at GC, as well, as more students bring their emotional support animals on campus.
The increase of emotional support animals is a relatively new trend, catching on at GC in the past three years.
According GC’s Student Disability Resource Center, emotional support animals are not service animals, but their purpose is to provide comfort and stability to their owners, who suffer from some kind of mental or psychiatric disability.
Federal law defines a service animal as a dog or miniature horse, but emotional support animals can be any animal that provides therapeutic value.
Support animals can be a ferret, cat, bird or any animal that medical professionals have deemed therapeutic.
Some students try to register an animal just to bring a pet to school, but a student without recorded medical history is incapable of passing a pet off as a support animal.
“What I tell students when I meet with them is that there are two keywords that I focus on: required vs. desired,” said Larry Christenson, executive director of student housing. “If you desire an animal, then it’s for the wrong reasons, but if you require an animal, then we can talk about moving forward.”
A licensed doctor has to recommend an emotional support animal as treatment for a mental or psychiatric disability in order for an emotional support animal to be considered “required.”
If a student wants to register their own emotional support animal, the first step is to go to the resource center at GC.
The resource center works with students to gather the required documentation and mental health history. The paperwork and proof of requirement will be shipped off and reviewed by the Georgia Board of Regents’ Center for Learning Disorders. Students receive a decision via email.
If the paperwork is cleared, then the final step is to meet with the resource center to nalize the agreement between owner and the university system.
This process usually takes about four to eight weeks, but for some, this lengthy process is well worth it.
Junior Shelby Breitmann, a psychology major, got her emotional support cat Millie from a local Milledgeville shelter where she often volunteers.
While Breitmann spent time at the shelter, Millie stood out because she wouldn’t leave her side.
Breitmann’s connection with Millie led her to foster the loving shelter cat. Breitmann’s passion for rescuing animals led her to find an emotionally supportive animal that would help her cope with her generalized anxiety disorder.
“It has been super helpful in my mental health journey,” said Breitmann. “Having an animal that needs me to take care of it and loves me when I need it has been a grounding presence in my life.”
Millie is a friendly face who always welcomes her home and is also able to help Breitmann deal with the pressures of college.
“When I am working on overwhelming assign
ments, she will come to sit in my lap,” Breitmann said. “When I need a break, she will look at me and lick my face. It is almost like she [is] telling me I am going to be okay.”
Junior Lauren Butera, a biology major, got her emotional support cat in the 7th grade.
For a year, her cat Alice was a registered service animal. These animals are individually trained to do work or tasks for the benefit of a person with a physical disability.
Alice retired into the role of emotional support animal when new laws were put in place deciding that only dogs and miniature horses could be trained service animals.
Because of the previous training she received to be a service animal, Lauren said she believes Alice is an even better emotional support animal.
When talking about her cat’s training, Lauren said, “She was even trained to know how to hug people.”