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Bill would allow more minors to access mental health services without parental OK

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Bill would allow more minors to access mental health services without parental OK

Feb 21, 2024 | 3:52 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Bill would allow more minors to access mental health services without parental OK
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A bill sponsor said the pandemic's effect on young people’s mental health, coupled with other ills born of the internet and social media, requires broader mental health care access for young people. (Photo by Amanda Berg)

Senate lawmakers will weigh whether to allow minors as young as 14 to consent to certain out-patient mental or behavioral health treatments without first obtaining parental approval, a plan that has drawn opposition from anti-vaccine and other groups.

State law already allows residents 16 and up to obtain these services without parental consent, and the to-be-combined bills sponsored by Sens. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) would make only one modest change to that law, replacing the word “sixteen” with the figure “14.”

Vitale, who chairs the Senate’s health committee, stressed that age is the sole thing lawmakers intend to change about the law. State law bars health care professionals from dispensing or administering medications to minors without parental consent, and the bill will not change that.

“It’s only the age,” Vitale said. “There’s no prescriptions. There’s no anything.”

The pandemic’s deleterious effect on young people’s mental health, coupled with other ills born of the internet and social media, necessitates broader mental health care access for young people, Vitale said.

In 2021, 42% of respondents to a youth risk behavior survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told researchers they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a proxy measure for depression that rated five percentage points lower in 2019, the prior survey year.

Suicidality edged upward, too, climbing three points to 22%, the highest level the survey has recorded since 1995. Suicidal planning and suicide attempts increased, too, rising to their highest levels in at least a decade.

“We’ve heard more stories than we care to hear like this: ‘My son or daughter took their life. If we only knew they were going through some problems, had issues,’” Vitale said.

Despite the bill’s narrow scope, the bill has very vocal critics, including at least one former legislator who alleges the bill is part of a broader push to eliminate the distinction between adults and minors.

“It seems like everything the Democrats have been doing has been moving to erase age limits,” said former Sen. Ed Durr, a Republican. “They were trying to make kids able to vote at 16. They want to make kids able to decide surgeries. They keep changing the age limit, and I don’t like where this is heading.”

Durr, who said he intends to testify on the bill before the Senate’s health committee on Thursday, said parents are best suited to see to their children’s mental health.

“I don’t like the way that they continue to the natural default is the parents are bad,” he said. “I’m not saying that there aren’t bad parents, but that shouldn’t be the natural default. Parents would do anything for their child.”

Vitale said that relying wholly on parents would leave some children in the lurch.

“In the event a child is in crisis and can’t speak to their parent or guardian, would they rather they speak to no one and continue to suffer?” he said.

Some of the groups opposing the bill have falsely claimed it would expand the surgical services minors can attain without parental consent.

State law provides minors as young as 13 can consent to certain medical or surgical care, but only if they believe they have a sexually transmitted infection or a physician believes they’ve been sexually assaulted.

The former provision has been on the books since winning unanimous approval from both legislative chambers in 1968 and has remained relatively unchanged since, though later bills added provisions for victims of sexual assault and strengthened parental notification procedures.

Current law requires physicians to notify parents when they believe a minor has suffered a sexual assault unless such notification runs contrary to the patient’s best interests.

Existing law does not require parental notification for minors 16 and up seeking to offer their own consent for behavioral health treatments, and the bill would not create such a requirement.