MU researchers bring awareness to emotional support animals

ESAs raise ethical and legal questions for clinical psychologists and their clients.

Freshman Laura Sigmund lives with her emotional support cat in Hatch Hall.

An emotional support animal provides “physical assistance, emotional support, calming and other kinds of assistance,” according to the service animals section of MU’s online manual of Business Policy and Procedure.

Any ESA kept in university housing must be approved by the Disability Center. Unlike service animals, which must be either a dog or in some cases a miniature horse, an ESA can be any species and does not require specific training.

This process begins when an individual applies for a disability accommodation on the Disability Center website. Then, the student meets with an access adviser to determine whether keeping an ESA is a reasonable accommodation, Barbara Hammer, director of the Disability Center, said.

Sigmund’s cat is eligible to live in her room because it helps Sigmund deal with anxiety and depression.

“It wasn’t difficult for me to show that I had need,” Sigmund said. “It’s been pretty smooth sailing.”

In some cases, the Disability Center will ask for a recommendation from a mental health professional before approving an ESA, but documentation is not required.

“In our case, or in the case of a landlord, we can’t make a person jump through a lot of hoops to provide us with documentation,” Hammer said. “We can’t ask a lot of intrusive questions about the nature of their disability.”

MU researchers are currently exploring the ethical and legal ramifications of psychologists certifying that a person needs an ESA. They have already published one article in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

“... There [are] no guidelines on this and there’s kind of a lack of awareness generally about not only what ESAs are, but also how psychologists are involved in that process,” said Cassie Boness, a graduate student in clinical psychology and co-author of the article.

Boness said while there is research regarding service animals and pets in general, ESAs are a new topic.

“The research that we found trying to answer the question, ‘Is there any evidence of the effectiveness of ESAs?’ is lacking,” Boness said.

Psychologists don’t have clear guidelines, either.

“[ESAs] also aren’t supported by the Americans with Disabilities Act, so there’s no regulatory board that looks over the certifications for ESAs,” Boness said.

This is significant because individuals can easily get an ESA certified online without even meeting in-person with a psychologist, Boness said. Clinical psychologists can also certify ESAs.

The researchers recommend that these letters be written only by forensic psychologists, who work at the intersection of psychology and law.

“These letters are in fact formal disability determinations under the law, which makes them a forensic evaluation, from our point of view,” Jeffrey Younggren, clinical professor and lead author of the article, said. “We believe that clinicians shouldn’t even be doing them, first because it’s not a part of their job as a treating therapist, and second because they aren’t really objective about their client’s needs and the impact of that determination.”

Sigmund, who discussed her ESA with her roommate beforehand, said she believes that other individuals who may not have a true need could cheat the system.

“They don’t really understand [the ESA] is for a mental illness, and they just think that I brought my cat because I went through the right system,” Sigmund said. “She actually has a purpose. So I definitely think that if people knew how to get through it, they would definitely abuse the system.”

Currently, six MU students, including Sigmund, have an ESA in university-run housing. Hammer said this is an increase from four or five years ago, when requests were as rare as one a year.

At MU, ESAs are only allowed in the owner’s room. They are not allowed anywhere else on campus, according to university policy. Legally, ESAs are protected by the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Act. The balance of the rights of the individual and the rights of the public is fundamental to the debate over ESAs, the researchers said.

“We’re mainly focusing on what types of techniques and assessment instruments should be used to make this evaluation,” Boness said. “We’re trying to think about what are standardized instruments that are familiar to forensic psychologists that would be useful.”

Edited by Claire Mitzel |

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