The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

'A voice for the voiceless'
Kiley O’Brien ’25, Assistant Features Editor • July 18, 2024
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Finding comfort in a furry friend

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Melissa Leonardi’s ’20 pitbull-lab mix and ESA, Maddy. PHOTOS: MITCHELL SHIELDS ’22/THE HAWK

Emotional Support Animals help students’ mental health

There is no excitement like a crowd of college students spotting a dog on campus. Animals bring a certain joy to people that is unlike any other; they don’t judge, they don’t ask questions, they only provide unwavering love.

These reasons are why some students turn to emotional support animals (ESAs) to improve their mental health.

The concept of ESAs is a fairly new one. Dr. Christine Mecke, director of student disability services, fields the requests for ESAs in on campus housing, and she said that five years ago when she started working at St. Joe’s there were no students requesting them.

“A lot of it has to do with increases in anxiety that students are experiencing,” Mecke said. “More students are expressing anxiety and find that [an ESA] might be a comfort to them.”

According to Mecke, three students requested to have ESAs on campus this school year. To get approval to keep an ESA in a residence hall, students must submit documentation from their doctor stating that having the animal is not just beneficial, but it is necessary for the student’s well-being.

Documentation has to be submitted to the Office of Student Disability Services at least 60 days before the start of the semester so appropriate housing can be arranged for the student and their ESA.

Students with ESAs who live off campus do not need to register them with the university, and under the fair housing act, their landlords are required to allow them to keep an ESA on the premise regardless of their pet policies.

After students are granted permission to have an ESA with them on campus, there are many rules and responsibilities that come with the privilege.

“They have to sign an agreement listing what their responsibilities are for the animal,” Mecke said. “The animal must stay in the residence, so it’s not something that goes to class with them or to other activities on campus.”

Disability Services works closely with the Office of Residence Life as well as the Office of Public Safety to make sure everyone is aware of the presence of ESAs in residence halls in the event of emergencies.

Students are responsible for caring for their ESA and making sure they are not a disturbance in the residence hall.

Melissa Leonardi ’20 has had Maddy, a six-year-old pitbull-lab mix and an ESA, for the past two years, first living in McShain Residence Center and now Merion Gardens.

Leonardi outside Merion Gardens with her ESA dog Maddy.

Leonardi compared the task of taking care of Maddy to taking care of a child.

“Not only do you have to worry about them going to the bathroom, but you also have to feed them, give them water, give them love,” Leonardi said.

Leonardi bases her class schedule and extracurriculars around Maddy’s schedule, which she said can be difficult, but she wants to make it work, because the benefits outweigh the problems.

“When I go into an anxiety or panic attack, if I’m crying or if I’m having a breakdown, she’ll come and sit next to me, comfort me and lick my face and be like, ‘hey, I’m here, you’re not alone,’” Leonardi said. “That’s the most rewarding feeling in the world.”

Kerry Dowd ’20 also lives with an ESA in Merion Gardens. Dowd adopted Nutmeg Jo, a seven-year-old miniature poodle from the Pennsylvania SPCA about two years ago. Like Leonardi, Dowd adopted their pet with the intention of registering her as an ESA.

“I’ve always grown up with pets, and since I’ve come to college, I’ve been struggling with my mental health,” Dowd said. “I thought getting an ESA would help me with responsibility and just cheering up my mood. I was lucky enough that it worked; she’s really helpful.”

Both Leonardi and Dowd said that students tend to have positive reactions when they see the ESAs on campus or outside of their residence hall.

“Anyone who knows Maddy knows she’s a sweetheart and would never hurt a fly,” Leonardi said. “[Students] adore her. I hear people tell me all the time, ‘I love seeing your dog.’”

Greg Nicholls, Ph.D., director of Counseling and Psychological services (CAPS), recognizes the wide-ranging benefits that come with having an ESA for people with a variety of mental illnesses.

“Even when students are not with their ESA, the anticipation of going home at the end of the day and knowing how they’ll feel [is beneficial],” Nicholls said. “That responsibility to care for the support animal has a big benefit; it gives people more of a purpose. That increased sense of purpose can’t be underestimated.”

ESAs are different than service animals in the sense that they do not have to go through training to be certified. Leonardi said she researched the process and spent $150 to have Maddy certified as an ESA for the remainder of her life.

Service animals tend to be dogs, while ESAs can be almost any animal. Mecke said her office has seen requests for cats and a gerbil in addition to the typical dog.

“You can have a lizard for an emotional support animal, but a lizard wouldn’t necessarily make a good service animal,” Mecke said.

Nicholls said ESAs are a valuable resource for students struggling with mental health based on companionship and unconditional positive regard that they offer.

“When we’re working with students in counseling and one will tell us that they’re applying for an emotional support animal or have an emotional support animal, often a dog, it benefits the counseling,” Nicholls said. “It’s always good news when they’re able to have that, because we know how much that’ll improve their lives.”

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