Thanks to changes in laws mandating reasonable accommodation of mental illness disabilities, we are seeing a boom in requests from our patients for documentation to keep emotional support animals with them in on and off campus housing, classes, public transportation and other public places. Patients desire an animal support to lean on through their stress. Within the past year, the population of dogs has exploded on the University campus where I serve as medical director — dogs leashed and (usually) obediently following their student, faculty and staff owners to classes, meals, and back home to the dorm. As a relatively outdoorsy, green and tolerant northwest University campus, the presence of animals on campus has yet to seem like a big deal, but as the numbers inevitably increase due to 25% of the college student population nationwide currently carrying a mental health diagnosis, it soon will be a big deal as individuals insist on exercising their civil rights along with their dogs.
And it isn’t always dogs. There are cats, along with the occasional pocketed rat, hamster, guinea pig, flying squirrel, and ferret not to mention emotional support pot bellied pigs, tarantulas, ducks and geese. And at least one snake.
Yes, a snake.
As a physician farmer concerned with stewardship of the patients I treat and the land and animals I care for, I’m emotionally caught and ethically bound in this new trend. The law compels clinicians to write the requested documentation to avoid accusations of potential discrimination, yet I’m more concerned for the rights of the animals themselves. I’ve loved, owned and cared for animals most of my sixty years and certainly missed my pets during the thirteen years I was in college, medical school, residency and doing inner city work (my tropical fish and goldfish notwithstanding). I neither had the time, the money, the space nor the inclination to keep an animal on a schedule and in an environment that I myself could barely tolerate, as stressed as I was. That is not stopping the distressed college student of today from demanding they be able to keep their animals with them in their stress-mess.
As a clinician, I’d much prefer writing fewer pharmaceutical prescriptions and help individuals find non-medicinal ways to address their distress. I’d like to see my patients develop coping skills to deal with the trouble that comes their way without falling apart, and the resilience to pick themselves up when they have been knocked down and feel broken. I’d like to see them develop the inner strength that comes with maturity and experience and knowing that “this too will pass.” I’d like individuals to see themselves as part of a diverse community and not a lone ranger of one, understanding that their actions have a ripple effect on those living, working, eating, riding and studying around them. Perhaps corporate work places, schools and universities should host a collaborative animal center with rotating dogs and cats from the local animal shelter, so those who wish to may have time with animals on their breaks without impacting others who aren’t animal fans, or with potentially life threatening animal dander allergies.
I didn’t go through medical training to write a prescription for a living breathing creature perceived by the law as a “treatment” rather than a profound responsibility that owners must take on for the lifetime of the animal. The animal is not disposable like a bottle of pills (or a human therapist) when no longer needed and needs a commitment from its owner beyond a time of high personal stress.
Pardon me now while I go take care of my dogs, my cats, and my horses and yes, my goldfish. They lean on me.