A growing number of students turn to pets for comfort.
Kaela Edwards ’23 started her college career rather uneventfully. She was a public health major and a member of the TCNJ trackand field team. Despite having some mild depression and social anxiety inhigh school, she settled in well to thecollege experience.
But early in her first spring semester, she suffered an injury that brought an end to her participation in track. “That’s when the anxiety and depression really started to hit,” she says. Running had provided her with a way to relieve her daily stress, and being part of a team had been a comfortable way for her to make friends. “I lost all motivation when I lost that.”
Her mental health worsened through the pandemic. She consulted the college’s health resources, and started seeing a therapist. As Edwards talked about the trouble she was having getting to classes, making herself meals, and even getting out of bed, her therapist suggested she look into an emotional support animal.
Enter Toby: an energetic, graystriped kitten who has turned the tide. Edwards learned about a litter of kittens from a friend around the same time that she had decided a pet was a good idea for her health. The college’s Accessibility Resource Center approved Toby to be Edwards’ emotional support animal and to live with her in her Campus Town apartment. Toby moved in with Edwards and her two roommates soon after.
“Toby has helped,” says Edwards.
Edwards is not alone. Requests for emotional support animals are increasingly common on college campuses nationwide. At TCNJ, the number of students who have an ESA in their campus residence has reached 22, a significant increase since the first approved ESA on campus in 2014.
Who gets approval for having an ESA at TCNJ is the responsibility of Meghan Sellet, director of the Accessibility Resource Center, and she follows a well-defined process. “It’s not like someone can just bring a pet,” she says. “A student would need to have an issue that a health care professional would deem an emotional support animal to be a reasonable and appropriate accommodation.”
A student with a verified need for an animal on campus must apply to Sellet’s office, provide a written recommendation from a health care provider, such as a doctor or psychologist, and then must sign a contract that lays out the details for the care of and responsibility for the animal. All roommates must agree to an animal in the residence, and ESAs are generally not permitted in classrooms.
Sellet, who has an emotional support animal herself, says her office welcomes the opportunity to help students who need animals for their well-being. “The bottom line for us is making sure that the animal provides a sense of comfort for the student,” she says.
For Edwards, that is certainly the case. “Taking care of something else helps me to take care of myself,” she says. It’s easier for her to prioritize going to the store or cleaning her room because she needs to do those things for Toby now, too. “When I’m feeling anxious about homework, Toby is a good distraction. He’ll cuddle up on my chest and I can calm down.”
And Edwards feels more confident around other people. “Toby’s a good conversation piece. I can talk about him all day,” she says. “When I am in class and have to speak up, I think ‘I can talk to people now, I can do this.’”
“The animal serves as a social catalyst,” says Jean Kirnan, a psychology professor at TCNJ who is doing research on the salutary effects of ESAs on students.
The anecdotal evidence is persuasive. Kirnan sees the calming effects an animal can have on students each time she brings her certified therapy dog, Cali, to campus. “I’ve worked with animals in educational settings for years, and I see how powerful it can be,” she says. “But there’s not a lot of research out there on this.”
Kirnan is bringing a scientific lens to the topic. With the help of Sellet and students Allison Shapiro ’21, Aidan Mistretta ’22, Gianna Fotinos ’21, and Brittany Blair ’21, Kirnan conducted interviews with TCNJ students with ESAs. Their work highlighted the reported benefits of having an animal, including a sense of comfort, improved social skills, and the alleviating of symptoms, such as anxiety attacks and PTSD. Some negative themes such as housing complications and the animals’ rights were also addressed. The research was published in the Journal of American College Health.
“Our research validated that animals bring significant benefits to these students. But there are obstacles, as with anything,” says Kirnan. She hopes to take the research to a quantitative level and move beyond TCNJ, and see if the themes match up on other college campuses.
In addition to the research study, students in Kirnan’s lab used the information they gathered to create an FAQ webpage about emotional support animals for Sellet’s office at ARC.
“For many people, an ESA is a reasonable and appropriate accommodation,” says Sellet. “We’re continuing to educate about why this is important and really essential.”
Just ask Kaela Edwards: “Toby’s a lifesaver.”
Picture: Peter Murphy