California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a new law that will make it easier for youth to obtain needed mental health counseling. Scheduled to take effect January 1, the law will allow children ages 12 and older to consent to their own mental health care if a mental health professional deems them mature enough to intelligently participate in treatment.
California law already allows minors to consent to mental health counseling but only if they are in danger of seriously harming themselves or others, or are victims of child abuse.1 Under the new law -- the Mental Health Services for At-Risk Youth Act (SB 543) -- youth will be able to access needed services before lives are in danger.
The law, signed by the Governor on Sept. 29, will make a critical difference for many California youth who have been unable to obtain care. Benji K. was one of these youth. As a young gay high school student, Benji endured name-calling and bullying. He felt isolated and depressed, and eventually tried to kill himself.
"I've always felt different, and not a very good kind of different. I've tried to commit suicide so many times in the past that I've lost count," Benji said. He worked with Equality California to advocate for SB 543 so that other kids wouldn't have to feel the way he did. "I want to be able to walk back into my high school and tell the students who are just like me (that) there are professionals you can talk to who will support you. You have people." 2
The tragic suicides in September of Seth Walsh, 13, in California; Asher Brown, 13, in Texas; Billy Lucas, 15, in Indiana; and Tyler Clementi, 18, in New Jersey, bring home what's at stake for at-risk teens, including many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth (LGBT). LGBT youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers. A staggering 21 percent of teens who identified as LGBT in a 2005 survey of Massachusetts youth reported having attempted suicide in the past year.3
SB 543 will make a difference for other young people as well, including homeless youth who do not have contact with their parents and are simply unable to obtain parent consent for treatment; youth whose parents do not condone mental health services and would refuse to give consent if asked; and youth who are embarrassed or ashamed of their need for mental health services or do not want to worry or disappoint their parents.
Once a teen begins counseling or treatment, SB 543 provides for the involvement of the teen's parent or guardian, unless the mental health professional determines that the involvement would be inappropriate. As under current law, minors may only consent to limited services under SB 543. Parents still must consent for most mental health treatments, such as psychotropic medications.SB 543 was introduced by Sen. Mark Leno and sponsored by Equality California, the National Association of Social Workers California Chapter, Mental Health America of Northern California, and the Gay Straight Alliance Network. The National Center for Youth Law supported the efforts of these groups and will assist with the law's implementation.
Individuals interested in more detailed information about SB 543 should go to www.teenhealthrights.org.
1 Cal. Fam. Code § 6924 (2010)
2 Benji tells his story in detail for Equality California3 2005 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Massachusetts Department of Education, p. 50 (2006