Especially During Holidays, Emotional Support Animals are Invaluable Help for People with Mental Health Conditions

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San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard explains how people with psychiatric disabilities benefit from emotional support animals, especially when it comes to holiday travel.

The ACAA has made airline travel possible for many people with mental illness--for many, the animals have an amazing calming effect that works better than any drug or therapy.

This holiday season, many people with mental health conditions will be traveling with their emotional support animals on airplanes headed to destinations across the country.

"We all know the holidays are a stressful time for people, but for people with mental illness, the stress can sometimes intensify their illness to the point of deteriorating their ability to function. However, an emotional support animal can help a person cope and keep them stable," says San Francisco therapist Michael Halyard.

"For those hoping to travel to see loved ones across the country, there’s the stress of getting there, but for some there’s also the stress of being with friends and relatives that the person may have moved across the country to avoid," adds Halyard.

Halyard is a San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and can be found on the websites and

Emotional support animals are pets that provide therapeutic benefit to their owners through devotion, affection and companionship. Unlike other service animals, emotional support animals do not require training to carry out specific tasks, and require only the same amount of training as an ordinary house pet.

"Emotional support animals provide emotional security, unconditional love, and act as a secure base for their owners," explains Halyard.

"Many people struggle due to trauma that triggered a psychological inability to function in day to day activities. Other people have biological-based psychiatric disorders that affect their ability to function. For all of the above, the company of a beloved pet serving as an emotional support animal can considerably diminish or eliminate their symptoms," adds Halyard.

Halyard says whether it disorders like Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Agoraphobia, Panic Disorder, PTSD, Autism Spectrum Disorders or Schizophrenia, people who have psychiatric disabilities can benefit tremendously from having an emotional support animal present in their lives.

"For some people, their emotional support animal is the one thing keeping them stable in spite of suffering from severe mental illness," argues Halyard.

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA) is the federal law that allows psychiatric patients to bring emotional support animals on commercial aircraft. "Emotional support animal" is legal terminology and defines rights to owners by the ACAA.

"The ACAA has made airline travel possible for many people with mental illness--for many, the animals have an amazing calming effect that works better than any drug or therapy," adds Halyard.

Airlines are used to people bringing their emotional support animals on board and have policies in place. Most airlines don’t charge an extra fee for emotional support animals but they do require the proper documentation and advanced notice 48 prior to the flight.

In order to have your pet become an emotional support animal, you need to get a letter from your physician or licensed mental health professional recommending the emotional support animal to help with your psychiatric disability, and the pet has to be able to get along with people without being a danger or nuisance. For airline travel, most people bring their animal in a pet travel crate.

"People get such tremendous benefit from their emotional support animals! Emotional support animals reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and even can return a person to a higher level of functioning. A person who has a major mental illness may be able to live a fairly normal life," explains Halyard.

"Even people with extreme anxiety around flying--who would normally need a strong tranquilizer--are able to fly fine with their emotional support animal," argues Halyard.

"If you already have psychiatric condition that substantially limits at least one of your major life activities, you may qualify to designate your pet as an emotional support animal," adds Halyard.

Michael Halyard, MS, MFT is a San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and specializes in LGBT issues, depression, anxiety, addictions and couples counseling in his San Francisco private practice. He can be found on the websites and

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Michael Halyard, MFT
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