When Jordan Hsia ’19 was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder earlier this year, she found a silver lining. These official diagnoses, she thought, would allow her to keep an emotional support animal in her dorm.
But instead of receiving permission to bring her emotional support cat to Bowdoin, Hsia found the accommodations process to be confusing and opaque, with her emails going unanswered or being passed between administrators until her request was officially denied last week.
Bowdoin is far from the only college to grapple with policies on emotional support animals in the last few years. However, other Maine colleges, including Bates, Colby and the University of Maine, have detailed, publicly available policies about emotional support animals and other assistance animals. Bowdoin does not.
Director of Student Accessibility Lesley Levy said that the process for obtaining an emotional support animal, or any other assistance animal, is the same as Bowdoin’s standard accommodations procedure, and that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. The animals are covered as a reasonable accommodation by the Fair Housing Act.
A Challenging Process
Hsia has struggled with her mental and physical health since she started at Bowdoin, with symptoms including an elevated heart rate and a tendency to fall asleep during class. She sought help from both the Health Center and the Counseling Center and was prescribed Adderall for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but still found herself struggling. Since the summer after her sophomore year, she lived intermittently with her cat, a calico named Naomi, which she found helpful for her mental health. This past fall, though, the Office of Residential Life told her that the cat could not live in her dorm due to Bowdoin’s no-pets policy.
In June 2018, Hsia reached out to a Portland-based psychologist that Counseling Services had recommended. She found it difficult to schedule an appointment, but ultimately met the psychologist in October and underwent psychoneurological testing, which included an IQ test and a Rorschach test. In February, she received her results, which included diagnoses of general anxiety disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Based on these results, Hsia discussed the possibility of an emotional support animal with the on-campus counselor she had seen for several years, who agreed to write her a letter. Certain studies have found emotional support animals to be effective in treating several psychiatric disorders.
Hsia also met with Levy to discuss the College’s emotional support animal policies. While the exact rules for any assistance animal are determined on a case-by-case basis, Bowdoin requires that animals remain caged when students are not present. Hsia felt that this rule was overly restrictive and would make it difficult to keep a cat.
Hsia reached out to her dean about her concerns, in accordance with the campus grievance policy for discrimination on the basis of a physical or mental disability. Her dean directed her back to Levy.
On March 7, Hsia completed the online form to apply for an emotional support animal, submitting documentation from both her counselor and the off-campus psychologist. On March 25, she received a formal denial of her request for accommodations, via an email from Levy.
The denial noted that only Hsia’s Bowdoin counselor had recommended an emotional support animal, while the off-campus psychologist had not.
“Although you may believe that having a cat in residence will help you, we have determined that authorizing the cat as a reasonable accommodation is not necessary in light of the evidence of your long history living in residence without such an aid and your excellent academic accomplishments,” the email said.
Laws and Policies
Emotional support animals are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they are included in the Fair Housing Act. With a few exceptions, the Act requires housing providers to allow tenants emotional support animals, and—per a 2013 guidance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development—it applies to housing at colleges and universities.
Since September 2017, two students have been approved for emotional support animals at Bowdoin, Levy said.
The Fair Housing Act allows for some restrictions on emotional support animals. Individuals must “have a disability-related need for an assistance animal,” and the housing provider can ask the person seeking accommodations to provide documentation from a mental health provider.
Bowdoin’s accommodation guidelines say that documentation for any accommodation must come from a professional outside of the College. According to Levy, this is standard practice among colleges and universities in order to reduce conflicts of interest. Colby’s student handbook indicates a similar policy.
Levy added that several campus offices refer students to off-campus health care providers.
Hsia found this policy frustrating, noting that she cannot afford to regularly see an off-campus provider and had to wait four months to see the psychologist that the College recommended. She has worked with a counselor at Bowdoin for several years but only met with the off-campus psychologist twice before receiving her diagnoses.
The Fair Housing Act also gives housing providers the right to deny a request if it “would impose an undue financial and administrative burden,” or if the specific animal threatens the health or safety of others or would cause substantial property damage.
To address these issues, many colleges have rules for students who obtain an emotional support animal. For example, Bates, Colby and the University of Maine all require students to fully vaccinate their animals and keep them in their rooms except when entering or leaving the building. None of those three colleges require animals to be caged, as Bowdoin does.
Another current senior, who asked to remain anonymous, sought out an emotional support animal in August of their junior year with a recommendation from their longtime therapist back home. The process was long, but the student ultimately received approval the following April. But when they tried to work through the logistics of bringing their cat to campus, they found the additional rules to be overly restrictive.
First, they would have to keep their cat in a cage when they were not in the room, which they thought would be harmful for the animal’s health. They considered buying a fence in order to create a sufficiently large cage, but then learned that emotional support animals were not allowed in Coles Tower, where they were planning to live as a senior, due to the building’s relatively open floor plan—bathrooms connect each of floor’s quads.
“I was approved, but no one was willing to actually successfully help me bring my cat on campus,” the student said.
The student felt that changing living situations in order to keep the animal would further isolate them from their friends and be harmful for their mental health. After a process that they described as “a really not fun, stressful, prolonged for no reason challenge,” they decided that having an emotional support animal was not worth it.
In the fall of 2017, following a student petition, Bowdoin launched the Accessibility Task Force—a group of students, faculty and staff who were entrusted to examine the College’s accommodations policies, think holistically about issues of accessibility on campus and ensure legal compliance with the ADA.
The recommended changes so far included the introduction of the Test Center, where students who receive academic accommodations can take proctored tests. But several members of the Task Force said that the group has not discussed mental health issues or accommodations. None of its 18 staff members are affiliated with Counseling Services.
Hsia, who will graduate in May, doesn’t expect that she’ll get her cat on campus this year. But she hopes that speaking up about her experience will lead to a broader discussion of mental health issues and accommodations at Bowdoin.
“It’s clearly a national conversation at this point,” she said.
Editor’s Note, 4/5/19 at 11:03 a.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that service animals are covered by the Fair Housing Act and follow the same accommodations process as assistance animals. Service animals are covered by the ADA, while assistance animals (including emotional support animals) are covered by the Fair Housing Act, and the accommodations processes for the two types of animals are different.