Marks: Emotional support animals are treatment, not toys

Across the United States, emotional support animals (ESAs) have become a trend. Recently, a story came out about a woman who tried to bring her “emotional support peacock” on a flight with her, resulting in airlines making stricter rules for allowing animals on flights. While it’s good that ESAs are being normalized, it’s gone too far — to the point of harming those who do rely on animals for emotional support.

At 15, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I tried therapy, then medication, and eventually improved with a combination of the two. Despite this, my quality of life wasn’t more than mediocre. Then I adopted Mia.

Mia is a chihuahua miniature pinscher mix who I met visiting a rescue shelter near my old college. I had thought about the idea of adopting an emotional support animal for a while, and she was the perfect candidate.

Mia in the garden. (Jadyn Marks/Emerald)

Shortly after adopting Mia, I left that school and returned home — my mental health had taken a steep descent, and Mia alone couldn’t help it.

However, after that, things began to improve dramatically. Having Mia around helped me a lot — she was a comfort when I was upset or anxious and made me feel protected and safe. As someone who was often too depressed to leave my apartment, I was usually alone and lonely, but Mia changed that. Having a constant companion made a huge difference, even in my general, everyday mood.

Without Mia, I would still be a functional student. But having her around has greatly improved my quality of life. I don’t have anxiety attacks nearly as often, and my depressive episodes are few and far between. And she’s better off as well — the rescue shelter staff members told me they presumed she had been used for breeding and then released on the streets.

Hearing about the woman claiming her peacock was an emotional support animal to cheat the system angered and worried me. Soon after, the New York Times came out with an op-ed about how emotional support animals are essentially a scam.

This is exactly what I was afraid of. This woman, and others like her, are using people with disabilities to cheat the system, discrediting those who actually need emotional support animals. Apparently, you can find a remote therapist online and qualify for an emotional support animal in under 15 minutes; “qualify” in the broadest sense of the word. No good (or licensed) therapist will diagnose you in just 15 minutes, much less online.

I was treated by the same psychiatrist for years. She diagnosed me, started me on medication, counseled me and eventually approved me for an emotional support animal. I didn’t cheat the system. Like therapy and medication, Mia became part of my treatment plan.

Because of stories like this woman’s and responses like that of the New York Times, I’m anticipating more difficulty in being accommodated. Will I have to jump through more hoops to rent an apartment? To take my 10-pound dog on a flight? If I do, it will be because of people who take advantage of the system.

If you’re one of those people, I urge you to stop. You’re stealing a method of treatment that wasn’t designed for you and making it less accessible for people with diagnosed mental illnesses. Yeah, you may really love your pet peacock, but has it helped your depression? Your anxiety? Does it calm your panic attacks? Does it substantially improve your quality of life? If you can’t say yes to any of these questions, you’re selfish and undeserving. Emotional support animals weren’t designed for you. Leave our treatment alone.

As for those of you who use an emotional support animal as part of your treatment plan, try not to let it get to you. Know your rights and the regulations you may have to follow, but assert them — if you’re abiding by regulations, there is no legal reason for you to be denied housing, or to have to leave your pet at home when you’re taking a flight. You are not the problem – those who abuse the system are. And the truth always comes out.

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Jadyn Marks

Jadyn Marks

Jadyn graduated from the University of Oregon in 2018 with a B.S. in political science and a minor in legal studies. She formerly worked as the opinion desk's associate editor. Prior to that, she had worked as a copy editor, news reporter, outreach director, and opinion writer.