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Considering a Service Animal for a Mental Heath Disorder

A service animal is typically any dog that is trained to assist or guide a person with a disability. Many assume that service animals can only help people with physical disabilities. As a result, many associate service animals as pets that assist the blind, hearing impaired, or the wheelchair bound. While this is true, service animals can also help people with psychiatric disorders, intellectual disabilities, or other mental illnesses, which can limit functioning in daily life.

The ways a service animal can assist a person with psychological limitations are numerous. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, these animals can help people with “psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.” Service animals can also provide accompaniment or perform certain tasks that a mentally disabled person may have trouble doing. 

How Service Animals Can Help

Service animals can help people with invisible disabilities like mental health disorders, which can strongly affect daily functioning. Cognitive impairments, fatigue, and mood imbalances are just a few ways that mental disabilities can affect a person. Having a service animal can make a huge difference on a person’s quality of life. A service animal can open up new doors as to what they can do and where they can go.

For people who have forms of anxiety like moderate agoraphobia or social anxiety disorder, a service animal can help that person navigate the outside world. They won’t be limited to the confines of their home. Rather, with a service animal, they may be prompted to engage in social behaviors. They may be able to establish a routine that will help them make trips outside or in group settings. The animal not only provides physical support on their outing, but they can minimize stress, and get help if their anxiety is too much to handle. Service animals can also remind people to take their medicine. For people with illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, this reminder can be life saving.

Service Animals Are Trained Specifically

Typically, service animals that help people with mental disabilities are trained to provide a specific task. For people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder, medication may be crucial in these instances.

A service animal can help the individual by reminding them to take their medication. A persistent nudge by a dog can force a person suffering from major depressive disorder to get out of bed and take his or her anti-depressant prescription. This can prevent more dangerous manifestations of the disorder like suicidal ideation or a suicide attempt. Never underestimate the assistance of a support system that will literally be by your side.

For those living every day with various types of mental disorders, service animals may be a crucial form of consistent support in addition to mental health counseling

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support pets are helpful for people suffering from a mental illness, even if they are not specifically trained as service animals. According to the National Service Animal Registry, “an emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal that, by its very presence, mitigates the emotional or psychological symptoms associated with a handler's condition or disorder.” Emotional support animals are especially helpful for people suffering from an anxiety disorder. Through animal instinct, an emotional support pet can sense their owner’s mood and act in ways that may provide healing. When a pet provides companionship and comfort it can be a form of invaluable healing. 

Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals

Service animals can help assist people with psychiatric disabilities that lie on the more severe end of the spectrum. Service animals are especially helpful if the person does not live with a loved one or caretaker. For example, a psychiatric service dog (PSD) that lives in the home with a single elderly person can help prevent certain actions that may be detrimental to them.

A psychiatric service dog is trained as a service animal to provide a number of essential functions. They can help find a person or place during an episode or during a panic attack. Service animals can also help people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to engage in healthier behaviors. If they are repeating tasks, service animals can be specifically trained to step in and break up that pattern. For other mental disorders, animals can also bring help if needed.

Service animals (like a psychiatric service dog) are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, while emotional support pets are not. Service animals are often trained for months and are permitted in a majority of places and businesses. Emotional support pets are permitted to fly on planes, but are not permitted in the majority of places, like hotels or privately owned businesses.

Considering a Service Animal for a Mental Heath Disorder

Service animals can improve mental health. Whether by providing specific assistance or serving as a way to regulate stress or loneliness, pets can increase the quality of life for their owners. For those suffering from mental disorders, studies show that service animals can reduce the anxiety and loneliness levels, particularly in the elderly. “When most of the elderly people arrive at a long-term care facility they feel depressed, alone and disorganized…Furthermore, contact with an animal also provides an opportunity for social interaction and discussions with other residents.”

Service animals can also help stabilize stress in individuals, thus minimizing the escalation of inherent mental disorders. People who have service animals may also have lower heart rates and blood pressure. With the support of a service animal, they may also react better to psychological stressors and manage existing mental illness better.

A service animal is trained to help with daily routines and tasks. Turning on the lights or reminding an individual to take their medication at a certain time are examples of a service animal’s activities. They can also be specifically trained to stay alert for psychiatric episodes for severe mental disorders.

For anxiety disorders, they can check the house for triggers that may be problematic for the owner. They can stall life-threatening behaviors or call for help in certain scenarios. If you have a disability that affects your psychological health, considering a service animal can provide companionship, safety, and overall wellness.




Chris Massman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Chris' training includes Family Systems Theory along with numerous other theories. She believes therapy is an art and chooses the theory she feels will most benefit the individual sitting in front of her. Her specialty lies is in the field of Chemical Dependency and Addictions. Chris is currently seeing individuals, couples and families. Chris is a Clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists as well as the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Chris has two locations including Tarzana and Agoura Hills, CA.