Due to the number of students applying for emotional support animals this summer Utah State University administration changed the policy in the counseling and psychological services department.
Last year multiple off-campus housing facilities made complaints to the university voicing frustration because many of their tenants were registering for emotional support animals to get around no pet policies. According to Brian Merrill, one of psychiatrists on the Utah State campus, putting restrictions on the distribution of support animal certificates allows counseling and psychological services to get support animals to the students who have been accurately diagnosed with a mental illness. Merrill said this is a step in the right direction for USU.
“In the past years there were so many emotional support animal letters being written it jeopardized the legitimacy of the whole system, ruining a good treatment for mental illness and making it harder for students who truly need them to get them,” Merrill said.
According to Merrill, even after a full psychiatric evaluation he is no longer allowed to administer support animal certificates like in the past, but instead he can write students a general letter of support. These letters state that the student would benefit from the company of an animal, though it does not give the student the right to have their animal in class or in places animals are not normally allowed.
With this change in policy, the estimated timeline to get a letter of certification from a psychiatrist granting a student rights to a support animal is approximately two months but can vary based on how long it takes for each individual to be evaluated.
“It makes more sense this way; it is hard to judge a person’s mental health in just one visit. Extending the process allows psychiatrists to get to know students before giving them a letter,” Merrill said.
Once a student receives a letter certifying their animal as an support animal they must remain in psychiatric therapy. Merrill said to effectively treat mental illness individual therapy is essential even when the patient has an support animal.
Students can also go through their own psychiatrist for the mental health evaluation if they would like to speed up to process.
“The letter from the doctor had to be pretty involved," said Stephanie Taylor, a USU student who recently went through the process of getting a support animal certificate. "My doctor said that he’s never had to write such an extensive letter for a patient before. He had to explain how long ago I was diagnosed, that I am being treated by him and that he thinks my quality of life would be better with a support animal."
Merrill hopes that this change in policy will help legitimize the use of ESA support animals for mental illness.