Animal therapy is an incomplete remedy for students’ mental health issues

More integrated methods are required to treat persistent struggles with anxiety or depression

Animals can’t solve all our mental health issues on their own. Illustration: Alex Vanderput/The Peak

By: Manisha Sharma, SFU Student

Whether you’re one of the 41% of Canadians who experience a significant amount of anxiety, or you’re trying to de-stress before finals, animal therapy at SFU is available to bring some light and happiness to your life. However, unless you have a personal service animal, animal therapy is only good for helping short, temporary episodes of minor poor mental health. And as the conversation about student mental health increases, we have to ask: is animal therapy a paltry offer for a problem that requires more dedicated resources? 

Animal therapy between a person and a trained animal is meant to be a coping tool for people struggling with health issues, including those regarding mental health. According to Healthline, there are a variety of animal-related therapies that range from casual interactions with an animal to those that are guided with specific treatment goals in mind. SFU-provided animal therapy workshops are more informal. During these sessions, students are invited to share snacks with bunnies or pet trained therapy dogs. It provides students with a safe place to reduce anxiety and stress in a social atmosphere.

While animal therapy may help with symptoms of poor mental health, it isn’t a cure-all. It’s meant to be one component in an ongoing treatment plan toward better mental health. Students need to be aware that as good as it feels to interact with animals, these services can’t replace counselling for persistent or serious mental health issues. Unfortunately, many students currently feel underserved by SFU’s Health & Counselling Services, and may ultimately mistake animal therapy sessions as “good enough” to deal with more serious problems as a stop-gap.

It’s important to be aware of the limitations of animal therapy. For example, while informal animal therapy may reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, or depression in the moment, will a university-provided animal be available during a panic attack right before class? Animal therapy also does not help address the underlying issues that may be causing these symptoms. 

The fact of the matter is, the bunny café and dog therapy sessions do not occur frequently or consistently enough to be effective for students with more long-term mental health struggles. Though the effort is appreciated, without integrated counselling and long-term goal management, the type of animal therapy currently offered at SFU only provides temporary, short-lived relief for short-term mental health issues. 

While wait times remain an issue, to get actual help for more long-term, persistent mental health problems, students should go to SFU Health & Counselling Services as a better option. 

Many students have mental health issues that need more attention and time than can be being provided at SFU. If we’re going to integrate animal therapy into our counselling services to help address this issue, we should at least be doing it holistically and consistently.