Emotional support animals (ESA for short) are a progressive new form of therapy currently gaining traction across the country. They are essentially a type of pet, but also much more than that. Prescribed through an emotional support letter, they provide comfort and companionship to those patients afflicted by the most common and debilitating mental illnesses on the planet. Conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism, and PTSD are some of the most widespread in America, but studies have proven that the company of an ESA can help decrease symptoms significantly, and prove a valuable tool in the battle against mental illness.
Emotional support animals receive no special training to prepare them for their role; they don’t function like therapy dogs, who are highly conditioned to provide comfort and therapy to a wide range of people. Emotional support animals appear virtually indistinguishable from other pets, and as far as they themselves know, they’re just an ordinary pet (a reductive statement which conveniently bypasses a philosophical discussion about an animal’s sentience and self-awareness, but is nonetheless applicable in this arena as a comparative clause!). However, the comfort they bring to their owners cannot be understated; it’s actually useful to view them as medical tools rather than pets.
Of course, emotional support animals cannot just be appointed by their owners; they need the official designation of a mental health professional, and that designation comes in the form of an emotional support letter, otherwise known as an ESA letter. The purpose of an emotional support letter is to provide the patient with proof that a) they are genuinely suffering from a mental disorder, and b) they are allowed to carry their emotional support animal around with them. Under several federal laws, mentally incapacitated people are not allowed to be discriminated against, and owning and availing of an ESA is included in this caveat. These laws, specifically the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Act (ACCA and FHA respectively), allow patients to bring their emotional support animal into areas where other pets are usually forbidden, including airplanes and any form of rented accommodation. All they have to present in these situations is a valid, in-date ESA letter from a verified medical health professional. Once they do, the airline staff or landlord are forbidden to discriminate against them, and could face court action if they do.
The rules around emotional support animals are clear enough; the whole operation hinges on the all-important emotional support letter. But as ESAs are a new progression in the field of mental health, there is some confusion as to what the ESA letter refers to, between both patients and those who are on the receiving end of the emotional support animal laws. Essentially, an emotional support letter does not refer to the emotional support animal; it is entirely referential to the patient. When traveling with an ESA, it’s an easy leap to think of your emotional support letter as a kind of passport for your ESA. Although this is a useful way to remember to bring your letter with you to the airport, it’s not entirely accurate.
An ESA letter does not come with the ESA. It is instead a kind of prescription, one that entitles the patient to avail of an ESA of their choosing, and all the benefits that come with that. ESA letters are prescribed by verified health professionals and are valid for one year. As soon as a letter goes out of date it is null and void, so a patient must always remember to keep their letter in date, especially if they’ve got a big trip coming up. Your emotional support letter doesn’t have to be prescribed by your family doctor, either; you can avail of one from any mental health professional, or even source one online through telemedicine. As long as it’s from a certified source, it doesn’t matter where the letter comes from.
It also doesn’t matter what animal you choose to be your ESA; the letter covers every species of pet. The letter also precludes anyone from asking about the specifics of your mental health disorder –it is actually against the law for them to do so. A valid emotional support letter should be enough for anyone who’s questioning you, be it an airline worker or a landlord. So, as you can clearly see, the ESA letter actually has very little to do with the animal as such, and everything to do with the patient’s status as a mental health sufferer. While the letter does afford the animal some travel and living rights under law, these laws were not set up to help the emotional support animal per se. The laws have been in place for many years to help those who are mentally or physically challenged, and no matter what form the treatment takes, the patients will always be the priority.