As schools across the country respond to a youth mental health crisis accelerated by the pandemic, many are confronting the thorny legal, ethical, and practical challenges of getting parents buy in on treatment. The issue has become politicized, with some states looking to streamline access as conservative politicians elsewhere propose further restrictions, accusing schools of trying to indoctrinate students and cut out parents.
Differing perspectives on mental health aren’t new for parents and kids, but more conflicts are emerging as young people get more comfortable talking openly about mental health and treatment becomes more readily available. Schools have invested pandemic relief money in hiring more mental health specialists as well as telehealth and online counseling to reach as many students as possible.
“It’s this disconnect,” said Chelsea Trout, a social worker at a charter school in Brooklyn. “The kids are all on TikTok or the internet and understand therapy speak and that this is something that could be helpful for their mental health and they are interested in, but don’t have the explicit buy-in from their parents.”
Research suggests that having to obtain parents buy in can be a significant barrier to teens accessing treatment.
Access to therapy can be critical, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth, who are significantly more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, and whose parents may not know about or approve of their sexual orientations or gender identities. Jessica Chock-Goldman, a social worker at Bard Early College High School in Manhattan, said she’s seen many cases where mental health issues turn severe in part because teens didn’t get earlier access to therapy.
“A lot of kids would be hospitalized because of suicidal ideations or attempts because the preventative work didn’t come into fruition,” she said.
The question of when young people can consent to mental health treatment is getting increasing attention from policymakers. States like California and Colorado have recently lowered the age of consent for treatment to 12. But in some states like North Carolina, the issue has been swept up into larger political debates about parents’ input on curriculum and the rights of transgender students.
There’s also a huge obstacle outside the law: Therapy is rarely free, and paying for it or submitting insurance claims often requires parental support.