Use of emotional support animals growing in popularity

Animals can provide emotional support to humans. Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are gaining popularity across the globe, and today, they’re showing up more in places that were previously labeled as animal-free.

Image Credit: Nadisja / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Nadisja / Shutterstock

A team of researchers at the University of New Mexico proposed a new standard and an assessment model for providing ESA certifications. The new assessment uses a 4-pronged approach for performing assessments, which include understanding, recognizing, and applying the laws in ESA regulation, a comprehensive and valid assessment of the person requesting an ESA certification, an assessment of the animal to ascertain it can perform its role as an ESA, and an assessment of the interaction between the individual and the animal, determining if the animal can provide the needs of the person.

“In this model, you have to take the animal into consideration. Somebody must certify that the animal is able to do what you’re asking it to do. And there are avenues by which animals can be evaluated regarding their capacity for these kinds of experiences,” Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at The University of New Mexico's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said.

An incident on a flight with an ESA on board

The study, which was published in the journal of the American Psychological Association, shows how the new guidelines and practices can help lessen instances where service animals attack and hurt other people. In a recent incident in July, a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight was bitten by a passenger’s emotional support dog, needing five stitches. The incident opened conversations about rules governing animals in transit.

“For years, AFA has supported the role trained animals can provide to passengers in the cabin,” the union said in a statement, “but we have also called for action in regard to setting standards for emotional support animals. We need the Department of Transportation to take action now,” the American Airlines flight said in an official statement.

ESA new guidelines

The researchers suggest that service dogs should be trained to deliver a function that is inaccessible to their human. However, at present, ESAs are not held to that standard. Now, the new study hopes that the regulatory agencies use the guidelines in providing ESA certifications.

"Our research has nothing to do with service animals. Seeing-eye dogs and therapy dogs are animals that help individuals manage their disabilities in certain situations - but that's not what an ESA is. An ESA is an example of a well-intended idea that has metastasized and developed into a world of nonsense," Younggren explained.

Further, the study authors note that the new model of assessment will better alight ESA certifications with legal and professional practices. At the same time, it provides a guide for mental health practitioners, to further regulate the release of ESA certifications.
"One of our biggest goals is to disseminate this information in order to better educate mental health providers, as well as policy writers, about the need for ethical guidelines around ESAs," Cassandra Boness, a co-author, said in a statement.

The researchers also want other people to continue the research, specifically the effects of ESAs on patients, so more scientific data is available as a basis for regulating ESA certificates.

The authors also said that mental health professionals who do not have full awareness of the law are more likely to fail to recognize that giving certifications needs a disability determination, which is included in the patient’s records.

At present, the only requirement for issuance of an ESA certificate for travel or housing, where animals are not allowed, is for patients to have an emotional condition or a mental disorder diagnosable by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Also, therapists are the ones giving ESA certificates to their patients, asserting the patient

"[The guidelines] will require that those individuals who certify these animals must conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the individual to determine that they have a disability under the DSM-5," Younggren further explained.

"That disability has to substantially interfere with the patient's ability to function, which is what the ADA requires. And the presence of the animal has to ameliorate the condition, which means you have to see the person with the animal,” he added.

Journal reference:

Emotional support animal assessments: Toward a standard and comprehensive model for mental health professionals. Younggren, Jeffrey N.,Boness, Cassandra L.,Bryant, Leisl M.,Koocher, Gerald P. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Aug 01 , 2019, https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fpro0000260

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

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Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She recently completed a Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and is now working as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.

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