by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin
A bill to allow teenagers 16 and older to access mental health services without parental permission is drawing debate in Concord, and could be killed by the Senate Thursday.
House Bill 114 would change New Hampshire law to state that “a minor 16 years of age or older may voluntarily consent to mental health services,” and to stipulate that a licensed provider would not need parental permission. The bill would still require parental permission for medication to be prescribed to minors.
Supporters say the legislation provides pathways for older teenagers to get help for mental health issues, some of which can lead to suicide. But Senate Republicans have voiced skepticism and raised concerns that the bill will erode parental rights.
Presenting the legislation, Rep. Donald Bouchard, a Manchester Democrat, said the bill would most help specific communities, such as youth who are homeless, live in unsupportive homes, or whose families don’t accept LGBTQ people.
“Many mature minor adolescents 16 and older either do not have supportive, capable parents, and/or are not ready to share their emotional struggles with their otherwise supportive parents,” Bouchard said.
Bouchard pointed to national survey results showing that teens are more likely to contemplate suicide in unsupportive homes.
Lowering the age of consent for counseling services is “lifesaving,” said Sam Hawkins, the public policy assistant at NAMI New Hampshire, the mental health advocacy group.
Speaking to New Hampshire senators, Hawkins cited the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that 36.2 percent of high school-aged students in New Hampshire reported “that their mental health was most of the time or always not good,” including 50.2 percent of female students.
“New Hampshire needs to look at new ways to address the youth mental health crisis and reducing barriers to care is one way of doing so,” he said.
And Emma Sevigny, the children’s behavioral health policy coordinator at New Futures, a health advocacy organization, said allowing teenagers earlier access to counseling could put them on a path to help sooner.
“Early and effective treatment is the best way to mitigate future long-term mental health consequences for our youth,” she said.
But Republican senators said the bill raised risks of children seeking counselors who might not be well-suited, and of doing so behind their parents’ backs.
Sen. Bill Gannon, a Sandown Republican, argued that teenagers were too young to know whether they needed counseling, and questioned why 16 was the chosen age threshold.
“You know the brain is not fully developed until (age) 25,” said Gannon. “So I’m thinking 16, in a lot of cases, is too young and that it just doesn’t strike me as a mature age.”
And he said that the bill would give mental health workers more rights over a minor than the minor’s parents.
Others, like Sen. Daryl Abbas, a Salem Republican, questioned how a minor would pay for the counseling.
Bouchard said he had left details about payment out of the bill, but that it was something that future legislation addresses. But he pushed back against Gannon’s arguments, countering that teenagers sometimes need counselors to help them communicate their mental health problems to their parents. And he said he chose 16 because it is the age that most New Hampshire teenagers begin driving.
“This bill addresses minors that are not ready to sit down with their parents and talk about what’s going through with them,” Bouchard said. “All their anxieties, all the problems that they’re having. And it’s the duty of the counselor to bridge that feeling so that they are able to sit down and speak to their parents.”
But Republican senators’ concerns have persisted.
“Whether I’m a parent of a straight kid, an LGBTQ kid, whatever, I still look at the parents as the primary caregiver, and I’m seeing that you’re denying them the information that they need,” Gannon said to Bouchard. “Parents are bookends, to me. You need one on each end to prop up (a child).”
Senate Majority Leader Sharon Carson, the chairwoman of Senate Judiciary Committee and a Londonderry Republican, asked questions about the quality of mental health care a minor might receive without parental guidance.
“How is a minor going to connect with a counselor?” she asked Hawkins. “How are they going to know that they’re seeing an appropriate counselor?”
Hawkins referred to online resources that list the counselors in a person’s state or area and list the areas of specialty.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to recommend the bill be killed, in a 3-2, party-line vote led by Republicans. The full Senate will take up that recommendation Thursday.
This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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