University is not a walk in the park.
Many students are plagued with looming deadlines, exams, projects and essays, and it’s not uncommon for some students to feel anxious throughout the school year.
But for students with depression or social anxiety disorders, university can seem like a nightmare. Not only are these students under pressure to do well academically, they’re also expected to adapt to a new social environment away from the comforts of home and to fit in with their peers and floormates.
According to Statistics Canada, 12 per cent of Canadians have anxiety disorders, causing mild to severe impairment. First-year students particularly struggle with university stress, and 14 per cent of first-year students in Canadian universities drop out annually.
But some students are fighting school stress in a new way — with animals.
More common than you think
Dogs, cats — even hedgehogs — are now making appearances in university residences across Canada. Referred to as therapy animals, these critters help students with anxiety by providing comfort and calm.
They differ from service animals, like seeing eye dogs, because they’re not trained to perform tasks or to assist their handlers with disabilities. Instead, therapy animals are used in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and rehabilitation centres as a source of stress relief and to improve mood.
Dean of Students Nick Hatt says, “If a student approaches us and it’s clear that their doctor or therapist feels that this is a good thing, we’ll assist them and do everything we can to support them.”
Hatt says there’s one registered animal on campus currently, but he can’t disclose what it is.
Though she doesn’t have any patients using therapy animals in her practice, Dr. Amanda Macdonald says therapy animals could be helpful for students with anxiety disorders.
A university “seems like the perfect population to have them. You’re away from home, and for most (students), the first time,” she says. “The benefits could be huge for people.”
Another way animals help students are paws rooms. Run by the Therapeutic Paws of Canada (TPOC), paws rooms help students de-stress by allowing them to interact and play with registered therapy dogs.
Aimed at first-year students, but open to everyone, 32 owner and dog “teams” travel across Halifax and surrounding areas visiting universities across the city.
Hatt says over 200 King’s students visited the paws room in April 2014. King’s students visited another paws room during the 2015 winter exam season.
TPOC Halifax team leader Mark Grant says the paws rooms are popular with students because “dogs are very warming. They’re very comfortable giving back to students.”
Are they necessary?
Because the use of therapy animals in residence is fairly recent, most schools’ that allow them don’t have any set guidelines. MacDonald says universities should be careful about using therapy animals.
“I would love to take a dog with me, to the library, to class, etcetera. It would be comforting and it would benefit me. But does someone with anxiety necessarily have to have a dog, or animal with them?”
Though therapy animals may not be allowed to live on every residence, TPOC leader Mark Grant says more universities across the country are asking the foundation to to visit their campuses.
The author made several attempts to reach out to students who have therapy pets. Her messages and calls were not returned.