Can mental health providers with a social work degree help clients register service animals? This is a complicated question. Some social workers can provide documents for clients who need an animal for some mental health needs. Like all legal issues, the devil is in the details. Here's a complete background of how a social worker can — and cannot — help a client with a companion animal.
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Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Service Animals
The law surrounding service animals can be confusing. Private companies contribute to this confusion by offering registration or certification for support animals for a hefty fee. Legally, there is no database or process for registering an animal that provides assistance. Landlords and airline companies may require proof from a mental health provider before allowing a tenant to move in with an animal or a customer to fly with a support animal in the cabin. Some social workers can provide this proof, but it's important for clients to understand that emotional support animals don't have the right to enter a restaurant, accompany owners to work or board public transportation. If a client's mental health provider prescribes a companion animal, that client has the right to live with the animal without paying any extra fees or pet rent.
Licensed Clinical Social Workers
Not every social worker can help a client register a support animal. With the proper training, a social worker can become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, or LCSW. This license requires the completion of a master's of social work (MSW) degree and supervised clinical practice. LCSWs have years of training to diagnose and treat mental health conditions. This means LCSWs can help clients secure support animals and also provide therapy services. Most health insurance plans cover therapy sessions with LCSWs just like psychologists or psychiatrists.
How to Register a Support Animal
A tenant who wishes to live with a support animal has the legal right to do so. The landlord also has the right to request some level of documentation. According to the American Humane Society, tenants should give their landlords a letter from their mental health providers. This letter should be on the provider's letterhead and identify the tenant's disability and how the animal alleviates the disability. An LCSW can provide this letter, but a landlord doesn't have to accept a letter from a non-licensed social worker.
What About Service Animals?
Social workers of all levels can help clients find service animals. That's because service animals provide specific interventions for people with disabilities. Service animals do not serve a mental health function; they do tasks like guide blind people or alert people with epilepsy to an impending seizure. A social worker can help clients find federal programs to pay for the cost of training a service animal or work with a person with disabilities to use a service animal in the workplace. A graduate of a bachelor's of social work (BSW) program could offer case management services to a client, including help with a service animal.
As part of their training, social workers learn about the legal requirements of their work. Clients who think they might need a service animal can ask anyone with a social work degree to help them learn more.