The stigma that surrounds mental illness takes a lot of different forms. One of those forms, unfortunately, is the stigma surrounding support animals.
Too often, an individual who might be battling anxiety disorders or PTSD will get a support animal but will have people give them skeptical looks when they take those animals into public places. Because of the Americans with Disability Act, businesses can’t deny a service animal entry, yet when the disability is invisible, as is the case with mental illness, people think that the animal’s companion is just gaming the system. This has been particularly an issue with airplanes, so much so that some plane companies have had to rethink their policies regarding service animals.
Part of the problem here is that there is not much a standardized system to have an animal recognized as a support animal, and the system that does exist is not necessarily rigorous enough to prevent people from taking advantage of it, which ruins the process for those who really need it. Yet that too is a form of stigma, the lack of thought, and formalization that goes into recognizing an animal as a service animal.
Beyond those issues, there are those on the other end of the spectrum who think that because an animal is considered a service animal, it shouldn’t behave like the animal it is. This is particularly true with dogs that bark or may otherwise act, well, like dogs. Yet just because an animal is trained to be a service animal, that does not erase the fact that they still have natural instincts, so dogs will bark for example.
And this time of year in the United States there is far to little regard for both service animals and their human companions who might be battling PTSD. I say there is too little regard because for the last several weeks, skies across the country have been lit up with loud, and sometimes illegal, fireworks, the sound of which can be a serious trigger for those battling PTSD and which can be seriously scary for the support animals as well.
Hopefully, as people start to become more aware of how much mental health matters, people will become more aware, and more respectful, to service animals servicing the invisible disability of mental illness. Or at least I can dream of such a world. Because destigmatizing mental illness will have to take many forms, and this will have to be one of them.