Animal companions ease students’ stress, anxiety

Junior advertising major Alissa Woodward holds her assistance cat, Gunner, in Olsen Hall on Monday, Feb. 13, 2016. Gunner aids Woodward in coping with her anxiety while in college. “It helps to come home to something solid, something unwavering,” Woodward said.

Jenna Kuczkowski

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the March 9 edition of The Kent Stater.

Resting just above the door handle of Madison Radke’s door in Wright Hall is a small sticker with “Animal in Residence” posted in bright red.

“I feel like when I say therapy animal or assistance animal, people get this idea of a seeing eye dog with a big harness, but really it’s not that at all,” Radke, a freshman human development and family studies major, said. “It could just be a cat in a dorm room.”

In her case, it is a 3-month-old cat named Norma.

Each door bearing the sticker holds a different story of a student with an assistance animal on campus.

As defined by Student Accessibility Services (SAS), an assistance animal is any animal that works, provides assistance, performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.

Radke is one of eight students on campus who has assistance animals in a residence hall.

Assistance animals have only been allowed in Kent State dorms since January 2016, after the result of a 2014 lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against the university, when a student claimed to be wrongfully denied the accommodation of an untrained therapy dog.

In January 2016, Kent State employees involved in the case signed a consent decree, or a settlement where someone agrees to take specific actions without admitting fault for the situation that led to the lawsuit.

The document stated Kent State would implement the “Policy on Reasonable Accommodations and Assistance Animals in University Housing” on campus and agreed to begin offering accommodations for students struggling with mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.

“Pretend anxiety is a volume knob. Usually when people get stressed out about a situation, they can turn it down or control the situation if they get anxious,” said Brittany Ring, a junior chemistry major. “When you have severe anxiety, the knob is cranked up and broken off and you can’t control anything — there’s no calming down from that.”

Ring has had a long history of struggling with depression and anxiety since eighth grade. Over the years, she has tried several different medications and gone through years of therapy, but during the summer of 2016, she accepted that medications just weren’t cutting it anymore and wanted to try something else.

“Medications don’t work the same for everybody, and I feel like it’s not the only option,” Ring said. “I like to be more in control of my life, and I feel like a lot of the medications I’ve been on are trying to dull my emotions or take over who I am as a person.”

That was when Ring decided she was going to try getting an assistance animal. Once she was approved, she got her assistance dog Odie.

“I much prefer to have Odie over any sort of medication,” Ring said. “He’s my medication.”

Alissa Woodward, a junior advertising major, also took advantage of the new accommodations offered by the university. Woodward said she had social anxiety all through high school and when she came to Kent State, it was even harder to transition.

“I have an anxiety disorder where it makes it hard to go into public and talk to people I don’t really know,” Woodward said. “I just get this tight ball of anxiety in my chest, like I have to assess a whole classroom before I know where I can sit and it’s just this constant over-analytical thing.”

During the Spring 2016 semester, she was approved for an assistance animal and adopted her cat, Gunner.  

“After a long, stressful day of class, it’s comforting just to know that I get to come back and have something that’s always here and doesn’t waiver,” Woodward said. “Gunner has definitely made the transition a lot easier for me.”

Radke said a lot of her stress and anxiety issues developed during her first semester at Kent State because of her rough transition and learning how to balance school.

“A lot of my stress and anxiety comes from not being able to sleep,” Radke said. “I get in this really bad cycle of not being able to fall asleep because I’m worried about what’s going on the next day. Then I’m tired the next day because I got no sleep so I’m drained, exhausted and I get even more stressed because I have no energy.”

Having her assistance cat Norma for the first time this semester to cuddle with every night breaks that cycle, Radke said.

“I feel like Gunner knows when I’m upset because he’ll get extra cuddly,” Woodward said. “I’ve actually had some physical health problems this past year too, and he’s been extremely helpful with that. I’ve always been an animal person, so I feel like their presence just calms me.”

Ring said her assistance dog Odie not only comforts her when she’s stressed, but he has also helped her keep a schedule and stay motivated.

“There were days when I was so busy and stressed that I would forget to eat sometimes, but now it’s like, ‘OK, Odie’s eating, time to eat,’” Ring said. “If I’m feeling unmotivated that day, he helps me get out of bed because he has to go out or wants to play. He gets me through the day. I always tell my residents he’s my “Odivation,” instead of motivation.”

Ring, Woodward and Radke all said they discovered the university’s ability to accommodate assistance animals through word of mouth and running into the few students with assistance animals on campus. In Woodward’s case, she found out when one of her professors briefly mentioned it in class.

“I definitely think it’s important that students on campus know this is an option,” Woodward said. “I feel like there are so many people on campus with these problems (anxiety and depression) that I think would really benefit from this service and they don’t even know it’s available to them.”

Ring said she feels like assistance animals aren’t something people talk about openly, so she herself was hesitant to reach out for more information because she was almost embarrassed. After she found out more information, she wished she’d known about the service sooner.

“If we find there’s a greater interest and need, we will make adjustments as needed so we can let students know about these services,” Eric Mansfield said, Kent State executive director of media relations. 

Mansfield said SAS has a lot of information online that students can access to learn more about assistance animals.

“As much as you might have a support system of friends or family, they don’t really know exactly what you’re going through, and sometimes that’s the most stressful part: trying to explain to someone what’s going on,” Ring said. “Assistance animals like Odie don’t need things explained to him and will be here for me no matter what.”

Jenna Kuczkowski is the general assignment editor, contact her at [email protected].