"50 percent of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14. Recognize the symptoms early." -NAMI
Emotional Support Animals refer to any animal, typically dogs or cats, that provide emotional support and comfort to their owners on a daily basis. Generally prescribed by a licensed mental health professional, such as a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Their companionship is beneficial for anxiety, depression, and certain phobias. Unfortunately, there's a significant difference for what ESAs can do compared to service dogs. Service dogs are, generally, allowed anywhere in the public while ESAs are not.
"Did you know, 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year? There are one in five Americans that experience any mental illness, and nearly one in 25 adults live with serious mental illnesses. Outside of the United States, around 450 million people currently suffer from [mental health] conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide." -NAMI and WHO
I spoke with a friend and classmate about her experience with Emotional Support Animals. Abby Pyle, a senior at Black Hills State University studying English education and photography. As if that's not enough stress alone, Abby has been dealing with depression going on eight years, and anxiety for about five years.
Prescribed an ESA by her therapist, Abby wants to express the importance of diagnosis and prescription versus certification. "You can't just have anyone write a letter to make your pet an ESA. Those are just scams and a waste of a person's time and money. Your therapist has to diagnose you and decide that an ESA would benefit you."
Dakota has been Abby's ESA for more than a year. She completed basic obedience training whereas service animals are required to be well-behaved, obedient animals with extra training in specific fields depending on the needs of their humans. There are guide animals for the blind, hearing animals for the deaf, psychiatric service animals for mental illnesses, autism support animals, allergy detection animals, and even migraine alert animals! Most of these assistance animals are dogs, but you can also get potbelly pigs, parrots, ferrets, miniature horses, ferrets and others trained to be service animals.
"My ESA, [Dakota] has helped me to find something to focus on when having high anxiety or anxiety attacks. Petting her helps me to focus on one sense... [Dakota] also forces me to get out of bed since she needs to be let out which aids in my depression," Abby shares.
Abby rescued her pup and spent the better half of a year understanding her and growing with her before Dakota became an ESA. She says that the best experience so far has been just that - getting to train with her and watching the growth in both herself and her pup. Abby says, "Dakota has become such a wonderful dog, more than I ever expected her to be, and I am learning to cope healthier thanks to her."
In the future, Abby is hoping to train Dakota as a service dog for self harm interruptions as well. They have already learned deep pressure therapy (DPT). This means that when Abby is distressed, Dakota can sense it. In response, Dakota comforts her by laying on Abby's chest using her body weight as pressure to calm and reassure Abby.
Now, while she isn't prescribed as one, Opal is my own personal support animal. I suffer from anxiety and PTSD, and Opal is of great help during any episodes or triggers. With that being said, I cannot expect to be able to take her with me anywhere animals aren't allowed.
Isaac and I adopted her from a shelter almost a year ago now, several months after we moved into our new home. We've both wanted a pet of our own for a while, but neither of us lived in a place where that would be allowed.
With Isaac gone so much last year for training, we decided that it would be a great idea to get a pet to keep me company in his absence. She quickly grew on us both, and if I am completely honest, it was pretty much love at first sight! We were at the shelter, hoping to pick up another cat. Unfortunately, that adult cat was unavailable for adoption due to illness. Isaac and I looked around the shelter at the rest of the animals, and I saw this five to six month old kitten named Janell.
The shelter was having a promo deal where older cats were cheapest, so Isaac wanted to look at the cat diagonal from Janell - Spice. Spice seemed nice, but as soon as we tried to take her out of her cage, she turned mean. Saddened by her lack of enthusiasm and mean streak, I thought we would be going home without a cat that day.
After little convincing, Isaac said we could look at Janell. The volunteer took her out and placed her in Isaac's arms. She crawled up around his shoulders and instantly began purring. That was the end of the search. We decided she was the kitten for us, regardless the cost, and we adopted her. Together, Isaac and I decided that Opal was a better fit for our adorable, energetic, crazy, cute kitty.
Not only does Opal aid in my mental health, but my sweet little fluff-ball is also helpful when I have my migraines! While she may not be able to speak, Opal is one of the best listeners around, and she loves to snuggle in tightly when I need her. Often times she even tries to distract me. Once, I was filling out important paperwork for my case, and it was clear I was under a great deal of stress. In response, Opal was up on the table, on my lap, pushing my pen around, and pretty much doing anything to distract me. You may think that every cat is going to do that, but honestly, most of the day she just lays in her bed in the window. She is truly remarkable, and I couldn't imagine living at the house without her!
If you are in need of immediate help, call a hotline. There are several free hotlines to call or message:
National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) | Call 800-950-NAMI or Text "NAMI" to 741741 | NAMI operates an emergency mental health hotline Monday–Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST. Operators can provide information about mental illness and refer callers to treatment, support groups, family support, and legal support, if needed.
Crisis Textline | Text "HOME" to 741741 | Specialized crisis counselors are just a text message away on this free, confidential 24-hour support line. To further protect your privacy, these messages do not appear on a phone bill. The text line also provides services and support if you are upset, scared, hurt, frustrated, or distressed.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) | Call 866-615-6464 | This organization has a variety of methods for you to communicate with knowledgeable people about mental health issues. In addition to the phone line, there is a live online chat option. These resources are available Monday–Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.
Veterans Crisis Line | Call 1-800-273-8255 or Text 838255 | Operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, these services aid veterans and their families who may be in crisis by connecting them with VA responders.
The Samaritans | Call 1-212-673-3000 | This is a New York–based organization operates a 24-hour crisis hotline for anyone in the area. Even if you’re not in crisis but feel like you need emotional support, this hotline can help
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline | Call 1-800-273-8255 | Crisis intervention and free emotional support are available, which is helpful when you need confidential assistance during a time of emotional distress for you or a loved one. The helpline is open 24/7, and a live online chat is available as well.
Mental Health America Hotline | Text "MHA" to 741741 | Mental Health America is a nationwide organization that provides assistance through this text line. You will be linked to someone who can guide you through a crisis or just provide information.