It is important to keep in mind that not every diagnosis of behavioral health issues will meet the legal criteria to be considered a disability. For example, if an individual suffers from a psychiatric disorder, but is not significantly limited by the condition in one or more major life activity, or the dog is not specifically trained to mitigate a debilitating condition, he or she may not have rights of service dogs that are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A psychiatric service dog team must meet the same criteria as any other service dog team to be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act: The individual must have a life-limiting disability and the service dog must be individually trained to perform tasks or do work that mitigates that disability.
Individuals suffering from disabling behavioral health issues may experience an additional challenge in their lives: the stigma that is attached to a behavioral health diagnosis. As it is, there is already a stigma associated with having a disability, regardless of its nature.
However, for many people who have not experienced severe behavioral health problems, mental illness is a taboo subject.
It is not uncommon for handlers of psychiatric service dogs to face a heightened degree of scrutiny from others, for a variety of reasons. There may be concerns about the individual’s psychological stability, doubts about the individual’s need for assistance from a service dog, or simply an inability to accept those who are “different.”
It’s crucial to keep in mind that a handler of a psychiatric service dog has two very important characteristics in common with handlers of any other type of service dog:
- A psychiatric service dog handler has a legitimate disability and by using a service dog, he or she is taking concrete steps toward independence and self-empowerment.
- Just like all other service dog handlers, a psychiatric service dog handler is a person first and a person with a disability second. He or she deserves just as much respect as anyone else, regardless of disability.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada for ages 15-44.*” The likelihood that you or someone close to you will be affected by mental illness at some point in your life is fairly high. Please do your part to eliminate the stigma associated with psychiatric disabilities by adopting a mindset of empathy.