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Mental Health and College: Emotional support animals can ease disorders

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By Scianna Garcia

Her freshman year at GCU, Natalie Samarin struggled with intrusive thoughts, repetitive behaviors and extreme anxiety, which manifested to nausea, tingling hands, headaches and chest tightness.

She was diagnosed with generalized depression and anxiety, as well as PTSD and OCD that summer.

That fall, she met her saving grace: a 3 1/2-year-old German shepherd mix named Cheese Stick. Her psychologist and neurologist thought she would benefit from adopting an emotional support animal, and determined she was mentally sound to do so.

Cheese Stick and other emotional support animals help mitigate the symptoms of mental or emotional disabilities such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Such assistance animals are typically prescribed by a licensed mental health professional as part of an individual’s treatment plan.

“I loved Cheese Stick instantly,” Samarin says.

“She just wanted love and to give love so purely. I remember crying from being overwhelmed in the first month I had her, and she came and laid down next to me with her head on my leg, and I just leaned over, held her and cried. She loved me always, despite my flaws, worries, and anxiety.”

Cheese Stick not only helped to improve Samarin’s mental health, but also was a hit on campus with her peers who missed their dogs at home.

As a college student, Samarin struggled with fears of uncertainty and unnecessary worry over out-of-control circumstances, such as the building collapsing while she’s sleeping, or an explosion occurring.

Samarin was unsure of what life would be like once she adopted Cheese Stick. Quickly, the puppy’s mischievous behavior helped Samarin overcome her fears.

“I didn’t know what I’d walk into when I got home, whether it was an emptied trash can, a hole dug into the drywall, ripped pillows, ripped apart toys, or a potty accident,” she says.

“The shedding also helped me. If a dog hair so much as was on my comforter, I’d want to wash all my bedding because I felt it was dirty. I learned to get over my fear of dog fur on everything and the constant uncertainty of a puppy helped me adjust to manage anxiety, and expectations, and my version of perfection.”

In the dorms, she developed a new sense of responsibility with Cheese Stick, as she would push her out of bed to get exercise and use the restroom.

Life at GCU with Cheese Stick

Samarin says she needed a doctor’s note and vaccination certificate for Cheese Stick to be allowed on campus.

Along with this, the campus had ground rules, some of which included a leash when not in the dorm, cleaning up after the pet outside, and no barking.

Samarin says she did receive a noise complaint in the beginning when Cheese Stick cried for her owner when she was away for long periods of time

This issue, and other small challenges of raising Cheese Stick in the dorm were easily fixed with the help of her boyfriend and three roommates, who loved Cheese Stick dearly and were attentive to all the growing pup’s needs.

“I think she had caused some stress and sometimes it was hard,” she says.

“She cost money, especially with emergency vet bills or food or bigger collars. I think she taught me responsibility that I really needed to get me through college and adult life. Knowing another life depends on me and loves me no matter what, makes me feel so happy, and loved. I don’t want to imagine life without her.”

She was grateful she could exercise with Cheese Stick on GCU’s spacious grounds and found it easy to care for her within the dorms. With carpetless dorms, accidents and paw prints were not an issue.

“I cannot begin to describe how much Cheese has helped me,” Samarin says.

“I feel loved so unconditionally as my true self. I’ve learned patience and I take care of myself by taking care of her. Her face and her silly personality bring me so much pure joy. Her cuddles and comfort bring me peace and security on my worst days. She’s always there always with me when others like my parents or my boyfriend can’t be. It’s hard to put into words exactly how much she’s helped me and continued to motivate me and allow me to have purpose to get out of bed even if it’s to walk her or feed her or let her out in my backyard. Those kinds of first steps lead to major improvements in someone suffering from mental health distress.”

Samarin, 21, graduated as a health care administration major at GCU in 2021, and now works as an administrative assistant to a nurse case manager in Orange County, California, where she grew up.

In Samarin’s current career, she can bring Cheese Stick to work with her daily and feels blessed to have her ESA with her on stressful days.

“It’s almost like she’s my cheerleader,” Samarin says.

“She continues to show unconditional love and support and has such a big personality. She’s definitely a bright spot in my life and I don’t regret one second of owning Cheese Stick. She’s the best decision and leap of faith I’ve made.

“I definitely would not trade my college experience for the world. Cheesey is my best friend and truly helped me so much in college. She has been such a great source of joy and comfort.”

Certapet Study

According to a recent study by Certapet, 99.29% of respondents say that their ESA made them feel secure and 94% mentioned less generalized anxiety disorders.

Certapet is an online platform improving access to mental health care by helping individuals to secure their ESA letters.

An ESA letter is an official document signed by a licensed mental health professional and can also be prescribed by other health professionals who have familiarity with an individual’s medical condition or a person’s disability, such as a general practitioner or a psychiatrist.

Once qualified for an ESA, the next step is to make sure the individual can properly care for the animal. This entails a list of questions such as, are they able to take them out to get exercise, can they afford their care, and can they provide proper attention?

Prairie Conlon, a licensed mental health professional and clinical director for Certapet, says ESAs serve as a natural form of therapy for college students struggling with maintaining a healthy state of mind.

“Emotional support animals help by creating a healthy distraction from negative thinking, because they demand attention, they want to cuddle and they want to play,” Conlon says.

“This can create enough mental distance from negative thinking that clients are then able to disconnect from that vicious cycle of worry and anxiety where they’re just ruminating.”

Conlon says as a certified counselor, the need for emotional support animals for students should be based solely by assessment, to determine if they’d benefit from counseling and mental health treatments. She also mentions that students with an ESA should be a part of a treatment plan led by a professional, too.

She says sometimes ESAs are not the best option for those diagnosed with mental illnesses. She says the stress of caring for an animal can sometimes make the situation worse, and from this comes the importance of assessments.

The long-term relationship with the ESA benefits the owners, Conlon says.

“The accountability alone can help bring a sense of grounding in normality to situational stressors or mental health stressors. Additionally, emotional support animals are mindful, in the moment, and they’re not worried about mistakes they make. They don’t hide their emotions, and they’re able to provide unconditional love.” CT

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