by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
Pet adoptions have increased dramatically since March, and it is no question that our furry and feathery friends are snuggling us overtime to help with the intense fears and worries we have experienced this year.
Many people come into therapy asking about emotional support animals, so it seems like a good time to explain the process and what is and is not covered by an ESA letter.
See a mental health professional within your state for an appropriate amount of time.
If you google "emotional support animal" or "ESA" the first 7-10 links are all ads and click-baits attempting to lull the unsuspecting pet owner into buying a "legitimate ESA support letter" and "outlining the rules and regulations of having an ESA" and being able to see a doctor or answering a short questionnaire for a one session assessment. There is no requirement for "registering" an emotional support animal.
Good rule of thumb: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Also, if you see an option for getting an ESA letter from a therapist who isn't in your state and you won't be seeing regularly, it is a hoax. Legally, therapists have been disciplined for such things.
When you have a therapist, talk to them about your interest in an ESA. Have an open mind and open dialogue about the potential shift you hope to see in your well-being because of the animal's presence. There is no set amount of sessions for being 'eligible' for an ESA letter, but your therapist is using their clinical judgment to assess both your diagnosis as well as your benefits and risks for this intervention. Ultimately, your therapist may ask you to consider other options if an ESA does not seem to be the best fit for you, or if other changes in your life may benefit you more effectively. No matter what it is, whether it is changes in habits or medication or exercise or an ESA, I always emphasize this: your relationship with yourself and the intervention itself that determines its effects.
The licensing board of your therapist should have guidelines for the considerations to be made for ESAs. The California Marriage & Family Therapy (CAMFT) has great resources written by attorneys on many different topics: this is the one for emotional support animals. The American Counseling Association also has one, "Position Statement for ESAs". The main consideration should be that the animal becomes a part of your continued wellness, rather than a crutch or an added stressor.
"Your relationship with yourself and the intervention itself that determines its effects."
You might feel frustrated at first, not being able to get a letter right away. With time, it is helpful to understand that it is a process and develop trust with your therapist, which helps guide the conversations and frame your outlook before you even take your new friend home.
What does an ESA letter do?
Having an ESA letter is not a free pass for taking your cuddly friend everywhere you go. ESA is very different from service animals, who are specially trained to help humans during every day tasks (such as mobility-assistance trained dogs for the blind). In fact, there are no federally recognized certification processes for emotional support animals.
An ESA letter may:
allow you to live in an apartment/housing development that typically does not allow pets, depending on the housing authority
allow you to fly with them, if the airline accommodates for them and if your ESA meets their requirements
An ESA letter may not:
allow you to take them into public places where animals are not allowed, such as restaurants or grocery stores
force your landlord to waive a pet fee
allow you and your ESA onto a plane when you have not followed the protocol
Currently there are no rules or regulations around training for emotional support animals. (This is different from psychiatric support animal, who is typically a dog trained specifically to assist with physical tasks such as helping a person with PTSD do a search of a room that feels unsafe or being able to identify a panic attack.) If you are considering an animal as an ESA, make sure that it can be part of the ecosystem of wellness, allowing you to continue to progress in overcoming your diagnosis.
If you are hoping to have access to an ESA letter, it is important to process the feelings that have also brought you to this request. The animal that may or may not come into your life is also a life in itself, and your lives will be intertwined. You will be making a commitment to care for their life, to accept them with their joys as well as their flaws and their struggles. By exploring this honestly and openly with your therapist, you can make a conscious and intentional decision about your mental health and the life of your new friend.