Support for ESAs Combats Ableism

Melissa Harris, Editor-in-Chief

As a long-time sufferer of emotional and mental disorders who struggles with depression and anxiety especially, I have sought almost every form of treatment under the sun: antidepressants, therapy, meditation, yoga, exercise. The list goes on. However, coming to college has made me realize an integral part of my mental wellbeing was missing once I arrived: my pet rabbit from home.

I forgot the way my rabbit would sit by me when he was out of his hutch, allowing me to stroke his soft fur and calm my anxieties after a sleepless night. It was this September, at the beginning of my junior year, that I looked into getting an emotional support animal at Oberlin. Although my family did not want me to take our rabbit to college, I ended up getting a hedgehog named Marlowe, and he has been the rock of my mentality on the days when I am most emotionally and psychologically unstable. The simple act of holding him when I feel a well of tears, anxiety and terror reminds me of the fragility and preciousness of life. He depends on me to survive, so I must remain strong and take care of myself — physically, mentally and emotionally — to take care of him. The companionship ultimately reinforces my self-care and positive mindfulness.

The relationship I have with my emotional support animal has made a huge impact on my overall wellbeing. But when I tell people about my hedgehog, some ask if I applied for an ESA just to have permission to have a pet on campus.

This question bothers me deeply. I have been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder and functional anxiety and depression, so my mental disorders are not always obvious in my everyday behavior. But their chronic effects hinder my ability to feel and perform at my fullest. The fact that my disorders are not explicitly visible to others does not mean that I do not have an illness and that I do not need a source of treatment — in this case, my ESA — to help me get by.

Unfortunately, skepticism of ESAs is widespread. Oberlin’s Office of Disabilities allowed me to undertake an application process to bring Marlowe to campus, but even here, the opportunity to apply only occurs once a month and is not the most readily-accessible procedure. However, there are many colleges and universities that still resist allowing any animals to live in residential buildings. Not only are many of these institutions skeptical of the efficacy of ESAs — even with clear research proving that the companionship of animals reduces the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and various depressive and anxiety disorders, among others — but these statements also speak to the belittling and invalidation of mental illness.

From the resistance to trigger warnings to name-calling millennials for being “too easily offended,” there is still a stigmatization of mental disorders. Resistance and skepticism of ESAs undermines the very real illnesses I endure. I am not weak. I am not soft. But just like anyone else, I can suffer from disorders and conditions that I cannot control. Marlowe isn’t just a companion to me. He is my medicine. He’s just as important to my health as my prescribed antidepressants. To doubt that and to prevent people like me from accessing effective treatment is ableist and continues the invalidation of people with mental and emotional disorders.

As we move into finals week, I encourage mindfulness of the stresses that may trigger depression, anxiety or other disorders. It is important to take care of your body and mind and to know that there are individuals on campus who may be suffering in ways you may not be able to see on the surface. Knowing this, continue supporting greater access to effective treatment for individuals in need. In my case, that means my ESA. Even if I cannot control what my disorders may bring in the coming week, I know I will have my ESA there to minimize the brunt of it.