Asm. Raj Mukherji proposed the legislation each year since 2017, and called it a legislative priority this year. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Assembly lawmakers have introduced legislation to lower the age teens in New Jersey can seek mental health services without parental consent to 13 years old.
The bill (A2328) comes seven years after then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a law allowing children as young as 16 to seek mental health treatment without a parent’s or guardian’s consent.
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji was behind both measures. He said he has pushed to lower the age since his first legislative term, which started in 2014.
Christie conditionally vetoed the first version of the 2016 law, which concerned minors of unspecified age.
“Frankly, that was the best we could get at the time, but I always thought this was unfinished business,” said Mukerji (D-Hudson). “There’s no reason that high school-aged students shouldn’t be able to seek mental health treatment and access care.”
The mental health crisis among students has worsened in recent years, as the number of children who experienced suicidal thoughts or attempts rose more than 30% from 2019 to 2021, according to a University of Virginia study. LGBTQ+ youth are three times more likely to consider suicide than other groups, and Black students are more likely to attempt suicide than other demographics, according to Pew Research.
Mukherji, a parent himself, called the trends alarming. While the bill was written with all troubled kids in mind, transgender youth were “front of mind,” he said.
“All you have to do is look at the data, and when you see the unmet mental health needs of all our teenagers and our youth, this is a common-sense, simple fix,” he said. “Quite frankly, some of the conversations being debated in other jurisdictions distract the issue at hand.”
Mukherji has introduced the bill every session since 2017. It’s now stalled in the Assembly Judiciary Committee and does not have a Senate companion.
If the law is passed and signed by the governor, New Jersey would join five other states that allow kids to seek mental health treatment at 13 without parental consent. More than 30 states have set the age of consent at 16 for behavioral health services.
Not everyone is on board. Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-Bergen) believes children in New Jersey shouldn’t be able to get mental health treatment without parental consent.
“How does this help? If there’s a problem, the parents should have some input on how it’s going to be solved, and if not, that’s very, very troubling,” he said. “How much of our children’s lives do we hand over to third parties?”
As a parent, he said he finds it hard to believe kids would want to seek out mental health services without seeking their family’s guidance. He believes that makes parental notification even more necessary, so parents know their child is suffering and can better help them.
“As a parent, I want to help them find the best professional, someone with a reputation or is the best doctor. The same thing you would do if your kid had an appendix issue or gallbladder issue,” Auth said. “Why am I going to take that prerogative away from a parent when it comes to mental health?”
Mukherji remains confident the bill will pass with bipartisan support.
“If we can save a few more lives, it’s not a red and blue issue. Suicide attempts are not limited to geographic areas,” he said. “This is much bigger than that, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this bill will save lives.”
An earlier version of this story should have said the bill Christie conditionally vetoed concerned minors, not specially young people who are at least 14.
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