Different states have different laws when it comes to seeking therapy as a minor. You may or may not need your parent or guardian’s consent depending on where you live and your state’s legal definition of mature.
In What Cases Will I Need a Parent’s Permission to Go to Therapy?
In many states, if you are under the age of 18, you will need a parent’s permission to attend therapy. This is because in order to give any kind of treatment—medical or psychological—a patient’s consent must first be obtained. If you are under the legal age to give consent as an adult in your state, then you’ll need a parent’s signature.
In some states, it may be required that your parent attend the first therapy session with you. If you decide together that you’ll need to attend regular sessions, the therapist can give your parents a form that allows you to attend on your own. If your parents are divorced, talk with them about what custody requirements must be met when giving consent for your treatment. It is most likely as simple as keeping the other parent informed.
It’s also crucial that your therapist speaks with your parent or guardian before making any changes to your treatment—including the number of sessions per month you attend and any medication you may be trialing. Provided you are in an environment where it’s safe and healthy for you to discuss your mental health needs with your parents, seeking therapy as a minor simply requires open and consistent communication between you, your parents, and the licensed mental health professional.
Are There Any Cases Where I Don’t Need a Parent’s Permission?
As with every rule, there are exceptions to the parental permission requirement. Some states, like California, allow minors to give consent to treatment for things like substance abuse or mental health treatment as young as 12. In many states, however, minors can only give their own consent for therapy in specific situations.
One such example is emancipation, whether court-ordered or situational. In court-ordered emancipation, the minor is deemed an adult and can make all of the decisions in their day-to-day life as one. This includes consenting to treatment. Usually, court-ordered emancipation is achieved by the minor when they appeal for it, after proving to the court they are already providing for themselves and do not rely on parental support. In some states, minors may qualify for situational emancipation, in which their marital status, military service, or parenthood will grant them independence.
In all cases in which emancipation qualifies you to give your own consent for treatment, you will need a copy of the decree. It’s also important to note that most states allow minors to give consent for themselves if they are in a situation in which delaying treatment while waiting for parental consent for therapy would put them in danger, such as if they are threatening suicide or self-harm.
What Should I Do If I Need Therapy but My Parents Won’t Let Me Go?
The good news is even if your parents won’t sign off on therapy sessions, you have a lot of resources available to you. Minors seeking therapy without parental consent should start in their schools. Most schools offer a licensed counselor available throughout the day that students can schedule time with. If you don’t feel comfortable talking directly with the school counselor, they may be able to help you find the best solution for your situation.
Additionally, researching the laws regarding minor consent for health care in your state may open more opportunities. Some states allow minors as young as 12 to seek mental health care for either a limited number of sessions or for specific circumstances that may be endangering them.
If it’s safe to do so, talking openly and honestly with your parents or guardian about why seeking therapy is important to you may help them understand why they should grant permission for you to attend. If it’s not safe for you to talk with your family, it may be the most beneficial to consult another trusted adult such as a mentor, teacher, or school counselor on what steps you should take in your situation.
What Therapists Have to Say
Here, several therapists explain how this works in different states, and offer advice on who you can ask within your state about seeking therapy as a minor:
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, E-RYT: People under the age of 18 need parental consent for medical and psychological treatment. This law is devised to protect minors, although there are some variations in the United States depending on the state where you live. Some people under the age of 18 may be considered “mature” by legal standards and so don’t need parental consent. These people may be married or in the military.
A good way to find help is to go to your school’s guidance counselor and ask. Alternatively, you can speak privately with your pediatrician, religious or youth leader, or a trusted teacher who will perhaps direct you to someone who can see you for therapy, although legal consent is still an issue.
Payment, of course, is also an issue. Usually the parent pays. This is difficult for everybody, because the parents will feel entitled to information that they are paying for, that is their legal right. The clinician will have to develop appropriate approaches, consulting the parents and the child under 18, to protect the child’s privacy.
Andrea M. Risi, LPC: Each state can differ slightly on this rule. In regard to mental health treatment in Colorado:
- “A minor who is fifteen years of age or older may consent to receive mental health services to be rendered by a facility or a professional person. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 27-65-103(2).”
In regard to treatment of addiction to or use of drugs in Colorado:
- “Minors may voluntarily apply for admission to alcohol/other drug abuse treatment, regardless of their age, with or without parental or legal guardian consent providing the treatment agency demonstrates adherence to its policy regarding admission of minors without parental or legal guardian consent. …Minors’ signatures shall suffice to authorize treatment, releases of information, fee payment (if minors have personal control of adequate financial resources), and other documents requiring client signatures. 6 Colo. Code Regs. § 1008-1 (15.225.2)1”
To summarize, in Colorado minors older than 15 years may seek mental health counseling without consent of a parent and any minor may seek treatment for substance abuse. Remember that when parents do give permission for you to attend counseling, that doesn’t mean they have access to your counselor’s records, nor can they talk to your counselor without your consent. I usually tell minors I am providing therapy to something like, “Everything we talk about is confidential unless you talk about hurting yourself or someone else, but we may want to include your parents on occasion with your permission.”
Deb Hirschhorn, PhD: According to a document produced in 2004 by the New York Civil Liberties Union, minors can obtain therapy without parental permission provided they have the ability to understand the “nature and consequences of a proposed treatment, including its risks, benefits and alternatives, and to reach an informed decision.” This is called informed consent.
The minor is entitled to confidentiality as well, meaning that the substance of the treatment, and the fact of being in treatment, is not disclosed without the person’s consent.
New York, however, includes a catch. There are three conditions, any one of which needs to be met:
- There is no parent or guardian
- Including the parent or guardian would be detrimental to the therapy
- The parent or guardian has refused to consent and a physician (medical doctor) decides that the therapy is necessary. The physician must notify the parents, but only if he or she thinks doing so is “clinically appropriate.”
An exception to these requirement is if the minor is living independently (called “emancipated”), married, pregnant, or the parent of a child.
Regardless of what route you follow when seeking therapy as a minor, the best thing you can do is build a support network you can talk with about the process. If you can’t speak with your parents, then it can be healthy to talk with a trusted friend or adult figure in your life. A teacher or family friend could be a good source of support and encouragement to have as you begin to find a therapist. The more people you have in your corner as you begin your mental health journey, the stronger you’ll feel and the better your process can be.
- Corcione, D. (2017, August 29). How to find a therapist when your parents won’t help. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-to-find-therapist-parents-wont-help
- McNary, A. (2014). Consent to treat minors. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 11(3-4), 43-45. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008301
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