How Psychiatric Service Animals Help Social Anxiety Disorder

Service animals can be used for social anxiety.
Service animals help those with social anxiety disorder. Getty / Westend61

Are you interested in obtaining a service animal to help you cope with a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (SAD)? While the topic may seem confusing at first, there are different definitions and rules regarding animals that can help individuals with mental disabilities—and your choice of animal will depend on the special circumstances that you face and daily needs that must be addressed. 

What is the Legal Definition of a Psychiatric Service Animal?

Based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 2010), "a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability."

While most people think of service animals as those that help individuals with physical disabilities (such as blindness), they are also of service for those with medical conditions and psychiatric illness. Psychiatric service animals who help with social anxiety disorder are just one type of the larger umbrella term "service animal."

So are service animals always dogs? Kind of. Sorry cat lovers, but only dogs and miniature horses are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as service animals as of March 15, 2011. 

Note that the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act have different definitions of assistance animals and service animals than the narrow definition of the ADA. Service animals may also be defined more broadly in your particular state or local area. Check with your state attorney general's office to learn what applies in your area.

Emotional Support Animal Versus Psychiatric Service Animal

According to the ADA, service animals are "working animals," not pets. Animals who are only there to offer comfort or emotional support for SAD and other mental illnesses (known as emotional support animals) are not recognized as service animals by the ADA.

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals (ESA) are not trained in skills to support a disability. Generally, individuals who have emotional support animals do not require that these animals go with them in public places, while those with service animals do. So if you have SAD, an emotional support animal would be there to provide comfort but not do specific tasks for you.

What kinds of animals can serve as ESAs? Any type that you would normally consider to be a pet, including dogs, cats, birds, and exotic animals. ESAs are permitted to fly in the cabin of an aircraft and qualify for no-pet housing but have no other special privileges.

Where Can I Take My Service Animal With Me?

The ADA states that service animals must be permitted "to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go." Local governments, business, and non-profit organizations must comply with these rules.

What does this mean? If you have social anxiety disorder, your service animal has to be allowed to go anywhere that you go—from the cafeteria to the doctor's waiting room. You also can't be charged an extra fee for your service animal, so if you're spending a night in a hotel with a pet fee, ask that it be waived.

What Will My Service Animal Wear?

Your service animal is not required to wear a special vest or harness—which may be particularly of importance for those with social anxiety. It could be an impediment if everywhere you go, people ask about why you have a service animal! Take small steps and talk to others about your animal when you are ready. All of these laws are in place to make your life as equal as possible to those without disabilities.

However, under the ADA, your service animal will need to be wearing a leash or harness of some sort, unless this interfere's with the animal's work—in which case, you need to be able to control your dog with your voice or through hand signals.

What Can I Legally Be Asked About My Service Animal?

When out in public, you may legally be asked if your dog is required because of a disability and what work your dog has been trained to perform. That's it! You don't need to answer any other questions that are asked.

You cannot be asked about your disability (so you don't have to tell them about your diagnosis of SAD), be asked to provide medical documentation or training documentation for your dog, or be asked to have your dog demonstrate the work he/she performs. Unfortunately, though, many individuals are not familiar with these rules.

What Should I Know About Air Travel With My Service Animal?

Traveling on an airplane with a service animal is fairly straightforward. The airline is not permitted to require anything of you beyond what they can legally ask you (tasks the dog performs, if the dog is required for a disability).

However, if you have an ESA instead of a service animal for your social anxiety, you will be required to provide a letter, not more than a year old, on letterhead, from a mental health professional.

The letter must state that you have a mental health disability listed in the DSM-V (but they cannot ask for you to specify your diagnosis), that your animal is necessary for your health/treatment, and that the letter is written by a mental health professional caring for you. Airlines may also ask you for documentation about the mental health provider's license.

Should I Choose a Service Animal or Emotional Support Animal for SAD?

An ESA is appropriate if the mere presence of an animal is what helps you to function. These animals are not trained to perform life tasks.

A psychiatric service animal will be more appropriate if you need an animal to help you perform a major life task. An example of task would be the ability of your dog to predict when you are about to have a panic attack and help by leading you to a safe place. People who suffer with comorbid disorders, such as depression and panic disorder, in addition to SAD, may be particularly suited to having a service animal.

How Can Service Animals Help with Social Anxiety?

When it comes to SAD, examples of tasks that your service animal might do include the following:

  • Reminding you to take prescription medication
  • Alerting you to rising anxiety so that you can leave a situation before you become overwhelmed
  • Blocking other people from getting too close to you
  • Leading you to a quiet place or exit if you have become overwhelmed by anxiety
  • Leading you to a seat if you are about to faint
  • Physically bracing you if you become dizzy or disoriented
  • Calling 911 for you using a K9 rescue phone

Although having a service animal by your side may make it easier to talk to strangers, service animals are not supposed to be approached while they are performing tasks.

How Can I Obtain a Service Animal for My Social Anxiety?

The first step toward obtaining a service animal if you have social anxiety disorder is to speak with your doctor or mental health professional. You will need to qualify for a service animal under the ADA—for which a diagnosis of SAD will be sufficient.

If you don't have an official diagnosis, requesting an assessment will be your first step toward obtaining a service animal. You will then need to approach an agency in order to locate an animal. Your doctor may be able to provide a referral or contact an agency on your behalf.

Service animals are not provided for free—you will need to pay for the animal. So, be sure that you have the financial resources to do so, as well as to provide care for the animal in the long term. If the upfront cost of a service animal is too much, you may even consider training an animal yourself.

Be aware, however, that there will still be expenses over the years. You should budget about $2000 a year for your animal.

The Role of Service Dog Organizations

Service dog organizations serve a number of purposes. Usually, they provide an opportunity for service animal owners to become members and register their animals.

Registering a service animal with an organization may help to reduce discrimination and problems with access without you having to disclose the nature of your disability. This may be especially helpful for SAD, since it is a condition that may not be obvious to others.

While the public should not question that you have a disability, having your dog registered may just make life easier. If you feel comfortable, have your animal wear a vest, harness or patch—these will usually say "Service Dog" or something of the like.

One example organization is the United States Service Dog Registry (USSDR), which offers a registry with free and voluntary online self-registration. 

How Can Pet Ownership Itself Help with Social Anxiety?

In a study of the role of pets among 177 individuals with serious mental illness, it was found that pets helped by providing empathy, making social connections easier, being a "family" member, and strengthening one's sense of self-efficacy and empowerment.

This study shows that pets are more than just companions. If you are not so severely impaired by your social anxiety that you need a service animal, a regular pet—be it a dog, cat, bird, iguana, whatever you feel comfortable with—just might give you the added support and confidence to face your social fears.

While it may seem confusing at first, obtaining an animal to help with your social anxiety does not need to be a difficult process.

Consider which type of animal is most suited to your situation (service animal, emotional support animal, or family pet), contact your medical professional as necessary, and evaluate your ability to support an animal in your home. 

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