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Emotional support dogs assist those who face mental illness like anxiety and depression.

Emotional support animals, most commonly cats or dogs, are intended to help those who have mental illnesses. They aren’t to be confused with service animals, which provide care for those who have physical disabilities, such as blindness. Nevertheless, depression and anxiety are widely known as common among college students.

JMU’s Office of Disability Services allows students to register an emotional support animal with the help of a clinician. However, some students said they wanted to see a smoother registration process in the future. Elaina Coviello, a junior health sciences major at JMU, said she’s dealt with suicidal thoughts and depression in the past. She also felt she wasted time filling out paperwork, but other than that, Coviello was happy working with ODS.

“It was honestly really hectic,” Coviello said. “The day I got approved was the day I got my service dog, so almost two and a half months to approve me, it’s a never-ending cycle of paperwork.”

Although some students like Coviello express frustration over the approval process, ODS claimed that the need for improvement falls on the clinicians who communicate with the office. Valerie Schoolcraft, the director of ODS, said she sees a need for clarity between JMU and the medical experts working for students with disabilities. She said the relationship between the students, clinicians and ODS must all be clear.

“The technical premise of assistance animals and emotional support animals through the Fair Housing Act is a more casual phrase used by some practitioners,” Schoolcraft said. “I would really like to see thoughtfulness on the part of students and their therapists when thinking through these issues.” 

In recent years, the issue of mental health has been a popular topic of conversation on college campuses. To help with this, JMU hosts events for students who face stress, anxiety or depression. The Counseling Center, despite its recent changes to its individual and group sessions, helps many students cope with their mental health difficulties. 

Jenny Baumgarten, a JMU alumna (’19), said she’s faced depression during her time in college, so she got an emotional support cat for her last semester of school. Baumgarten thinks the reason for a higher rate of emotional support animals on campus is due to the stress students constantly face.

“I would say that college times tend to be a really low point for people — excess stress, being away from family, not having a normal support system,” Baumgarten said. “This is probably the most stressed-out group of young adults that have a lot of mental needs.”

Coviello offered a broader reason, focusing more on mental health, as to why this may be happening. She recalled her work as a health sciences major and criticized the roles modern technology and social media play toward mental health.

“For me, I don’t want to say I’m biased, but I definitely think that because mental illness is so prevalent now, we’re much more open to the conversation,” Coviello said. “Having all this technology is increasing mental health problems in students, looking at Instagram and comparing themselves and feeling bad about themselves.”

However, for Coviello, being allowed to have an emotional support dog on campus, regardless of the stress that came with registering it, had greatly paid off in the long term.

“Ever since I got her — it sounds so weird — but my life has gotten literally so much better,” Coviello said. “They could read your energy, and it changed my life, getting my dog.”

Contact Christian Lovallo at lovallca@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.