Despite Justice Department Ruling, Emotional Support Animals are still Invaluable Help for People with Mental Health Conditions

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San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard, MFT outlines how rule changes to Americans with Disabilities Act lessened protection for people using emotional support animals. Nonetheless, people are still getting relief for their mental health conditions from emotional support animals and protections for housing and air travel are still in place.

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

Despite the recent rule change the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), more and more people are alleviating their psychiatric symptoms by having emotional support animals serve as their companions--whether it’s at home, out in public, or on a plane.

In March 2011, the Justice Department made rule changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that tightened the definition of what qualities as a “service animal.” The new rules stipulate that only animals trained to perform certain tasks for their owners qualify as service animals. This means emotional support animals--who generally aren't trained to perform a specific task--are no longer considered service animals. This change allows establishments to refuse service to individuals with emotional support animals.

“The Justice Department’s new rules mean that those benefiting from emotional support animals no longer have the right to bring their animals into public places like hospitals, shops, theaters, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, and government buildings. But this rule leaves the protections for air travel and housing unchanged,” says San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard, MFT.

Halyard is a San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and can be found on the websites http://www.sftherapy.com/ and http://www.sanfrancisco-psychotherapy.com.

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 should not be confused with psychiatric service animals. The latter referring to animals that require special training to perform specific tasks that help a person mitigate the effects of a mental illness--like turning on the lights for a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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

“Many people struggle with situations that used to be easy for them. Frequently it is a traumatic life event 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 three federal laws that regulate emotional support animals are the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ACAA and the FHAA regulate emotional support animals on commercial aircraft and in housing, while the ADA regulates the use of emotional support animals in public places. “Emotional support animal” is legal terminology and defines rights to owners by the ACAA and FHAA. Although the ADA rule change reduced protections for public places, protections for housing and air travel remain strong.

Landlords are required to provide reasonable accommodations to allow disabled tenants to have an emotional support animal even when there’s a “no pet” policy if they have the proper documentation. Landlords must waive security deposits for pets, but the owner can be charged for any damage caused by the emotional support animal. Airlines are used to people bringing their emotional support animals and have policies in place. Most airlines don’t charge an extra fee for emotional support animals, but they do require the proper documentation.

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 disability, and the pet has to be able to live peacefully with people without being a danger or nuisance.

California registers service animals through each county’s animal enforcement department. San Francisco residents can get a service-dog tag from the Animal Care and Control Department if they have a letter recommending an emotional service dog from their therapist or physician.

“It’s important to train your animal so that it doesn’t bother other people, as there are still establishments that will allow them to accompany you--but it is now up to the establishment,” says Halyard.

“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. Children with autism can feel safe enough to engage with others at school," explains Halyard.

"Moreover, a person with Agoraphobia who couldn’t normally leave their home is able to leave their apartment--and can go out and get food or medication with their emotional support animal. 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.

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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 http://www.sftherapy.com/ and http://www.sanfrancisco-psychotherapy.com.

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