Support System: emotional support animals assist with student disabilities

Nicole Stone/News Director


Emotional support animals, a growing demographic among universities nationwide, have taken up a role in the lives of students with diagnosed psychiatric disabilities — as residents of dorm rooms.

There is a difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal. Emotional support animals are any “typically domesticated animal” and “mainly have to do with comfort services,” according to Stephen Loynaz, access consultant manager for the Disability and Resource Center. Support animals are helpful if the student experiences anxiety, depression, homesickness or loneliness, Loynaz said.

“For some students, emotional support animals can help them with sleep regulation because the animal will wake you up at a certain time,” Loynaz told Student Media.

On the other hand, service animals are professionals trained for a specific task their owners may not be able to do on their own: opening doors, sensing seizures, night-terrors or flashbacks.

At FIU, service animals are allowed anywhere on campus where a student can go.

“We don’t have any miniature horses on campus,” Loynaz said. “My assumption is that because we’re a very urban environment, so we don’t have any students who have chosen to get a miniature horse because the care and maintenance is very similar to that of a regular horse.”

Loynaz advises students to make good decisions about choosing an ESA.

“Make sure you pick an animal that fits your lifestyle and fits your ability to care for it,” Loynaz said. “We want to make sure that you’re happy and that the animal is happy too.”

The DRC and Housing and Residential Life work together to accommodate the needs of students who request support animals.

Under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination against race, sex, national origin or disability in the rental of dwellings to an individual, a documented legitimate need for a support animal is met. Students have a civil right to house an emotional support animal, but because these animals are not trained professionals, Student Housing remains the only on-campus area designated as an ESA-friendly environment.

“[Support animals] can be brought in the outside area of housing so that they can relieve themselves, but the animal is not allowed in places like the Library, Graham Center, or classroom spaces. They are not trained like the service animals are, so they do pose other risks the service animals does not pose. That is where the difference lies, if you have an emotional support animal, you are limited to the housing facilities.” Loynaz said.

And some places on campus completely prohibit animals, according to Loynaz.

“It’s usually if it poses a health risk to animals or people, so some of our labs doing specialized research with chemicals, animal hair may be an issue,” Loynaz said. “We have those on a case by case basis. With our medical programs and operating rooms, there’s obviously a very high risk of putting someone’s life in danger if you bring an animal into this area. At that point, we do find alternative methods of recreating the learning experiences.”

Upon entering college, students are faced with a newfound liberty to consider their mental well being and access tools, such as Counseling and Psychological Services, to develop a better understand of themselves.

“FIU is, in many cases, the first time a student might have the opportunity to really explore the mental health side of their needs,” Loynaz told Student Media, “because of culture, socioeconomic status, stigma, or any history that student may have, sometimes mental health concerns aren’t looked at.”

Though, CAPS, in tandem with widespread discussion of mental wellness and efforts to destigmatize mental illness, is allowing students to open up about mental health.

“A student may come here to FIU and say: ‘Wow, for the first time, now I have an option to really look at this and explore why it is that I’m experiencing education or the classroom environment a certain way,’” Loynaz said.

When a mental health issue begins to impair a major life function, such as eating, thinking, learning or communicating, it becomes a disability. The DRC and CAPS work closely together to address the mental health needs of a student in these cases.

“We meet at least one to two times a semester — guaranteed — to review our process and relationship,” Loynaz said. “We see what kinds of referrals we can develop, what kind of information we can transfer from one place to the other and make our processes a little bit better. We are constantly referring students over there. We can work with CAPS to make sure that [students] have good information about themselves.”

CAPS provides students with a mental health evaluation and specialize in short term therapy, which is, in Loynaz’s opinion, the best fit for college campuses where students are not here for the long term.

“When a student presents themselves with long term needs, CAPS does a good job of referring them to service providers in the area. Once the student gets connected with one of those long term services, the ESA conversation can be brought up with that provider.”

Emotional support animals are supplementary to long-term therapy, not pets. Loynaz described the process the DRC uses to investigate the legitimacy of ESA requests. Not only will putting a pet out there as a service animal break FIU rules, but it’s felonious.

“The more people who who try to take advantage of this, and the more people present illegitimate cases, the harder it becomes for other students to benefit from the process because then, we have to put in more strenuous screening procedures,” Loynaz said.

“If we have a letter from your pediatrician saying that you need an ESA, we may look at that with a bit of suspicion because the pediatrician is not usually the one who would not usually prescribe you an ESA. It should be an appropriate doctor. That’s usually the main red flag that comes up when we see a letter.”

He urged students not to purchase these letters online.

“We know about these sites. The thing about these places is that, legally, they can’t say they’re been seeing you long term because they haven’t been … They’ll usually say that they’re backed up by these laws and all this research. The letter will usually have more information about laws and research than the actual student and that’s a big red flag.”

The entire process to apply for an ESA should only take a few days and begins in Loynaz’s office with the presentation of a letter. Afterwards, Housing is notified by the DRC. The student will meet with Housing to go over University policy and their roommates to make sure there aren’t any complications in the form of allergies or phobias, then, the student is free to bring their ESA into their dorm.

“Don’t suffer in silence,” Loynaz said. “If you are dealing with something that requires some support, there’s a lot of support on campus. All FIU employees are trained to get in contact with us. Speak to your RA [resident advisor], speak to your professors or speak to your mentors. The earlier you get to us, the better.”


Image by Dorinser, retrieved from Flickr:

1 Comment on "Support System: emotional support animals assist with student disabilities"

  1. Animals can help with sleep regulation? That is an extremely stupid, weak argument.
    Get a freaking alarm clock.

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