Adolescent Health Care Act Provides Options for Families Seeking Mental Health and Substance Use Help for Young People Resistant to Treatment

A Brief Overview

  • The Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act, passed into law by the Washington Legislature in 2019, gives parents and providers more leverage in treating a young person who won’t or can’t independently seek medical help for mental illness and/or substance use disorder.
  • The Washington State Hospital Association on July 9, 2019, provided a slide presentation describing the law’s history and its primary features.
  • A place to connect with other families concerned about adolescent mental healthcare access in Washington State is a group called Youth Behavioral Healthcare Advocates (YBHA-WA) on Facebook. Included on the page are handouts that summarize key aspects of the new law. 

Full Article

Getting mental health help for a youth in crisis can be complicated, frustrating and frightening.

Mental Health America ranks states based on the incidence of mental illness and access to services. The agency’s 2020 rankings list Washington in the 43rd position, based on various measures that indicate a higher prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care.

Often a barrier to treatment is the youth, who may not be able to see a problem or want to get professional help. Parents often struggle to navigate systems that must balance a young person’s autonomy with concern that they may not be able to make good decisions because of their development, specific illness circumstances or symptoms that impact the brain.

In Washington State, the age of medical consent is 13. That means that a person 13-17 years old can independently seek medical treatment, without the consent or knowledge of parents.

Age of consent laws also have meant that Washington youth could say no to mental health or substance use treatment, regardless of whether parents and providers agreed that such treatment was necessary to protect the safety and well-being of the adolescent.

A law passed by the Washington legislature in 2019 gives parents and providers more leverage when a young person is struggling with a mental illness or substance use disorder and won’t independently engage with treatment. The law does not limit an adolescent’s ability to initiate treatment on their own.

A January 8, 2020, article in Crosscut profiles several families impacted by the new law. “Until the new law,” the article states, “parents often were shut out of their teenager’s care and treatment plans and couldn’t push a teen toward necessary outpatient or inpatient care without their consent.”

The Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act enables parents/caregivers to bring a child for inpatient or outpatient treatment without requiring consent from the child, ages 13-17. The law includes elements introduced by the state Senate and House of Representatives, which originally titled the bill as HB 1874.

Passage of the law was a win for the Children’s Mental Health Work Group, which studied and reviewed recommendations from a stakeholder advisory group authorized by the 2018 legislature. The final version of the law included input from family members, youth, clinicians, hospital staff and many others who met dozens of times. A June 13, 2019, slide presentation available online provides additional history and detail about the work group and its recommendations: Family Initiated Treatment and Engaging Families in Treatment of Youth. The webinar with sound is available on YouTube.

The 2020 legislature is considering amendments to the law, and the Children’s Mental Health Work Group continues to meet to consider proposals to clarify provisions that relate to residential treatment and referrals for Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe).

“Parent” is broadly defined

The 2019 law expands the definition of parent to include a wide range of family caregivers, guardians and others who have authority to initiate treatment. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW 9A.72.085) provides standards for “subscribing to an unsworn statement” that can apply to a caregiver initiating treatment. 

Note that parents retain the right to make medical decisions for children younger than 13, and adults 18 and older are responsible for medical decision-making if there is no guardianship.

A substantive change with the 2019 law is that providers may share mental health information with parents without an adolescent’s consent, if the provider determines that information sharing with family is in the best interests of the adolescent patient. A list of information-sharing guidelines is included below.

How Family-Initiated Treatment Works

If a parent/caregiver believes that an adolescent requires mental health or substance use disorder treatment, the adult can escort the young person to an inpatient or outpatient treatment facility even if the adolescent doesn’t readily agree to go.

A provider will assess the adolescent and consider information from the family to determine whether treatment is medically necessary. An adolescent’s refusal to engage with the provider cannot be the sole basis for refusing to treat.

An inpatient facility can detain the adolescent under Family-Initiated Treatment (FIT) if medically necessary. Note: another option could be detention under the Involuntary Treatment Act (ITA), if the adolescent is determined to be gravely disabled or at imminent risk of self-harm or harm to others.

If medical necessity is found by an outpatient provider, a counselor is limited to 12 sessions over 3 months to attempt to work with the adolescent. If the young person still refuses to engage with treatment, then the period of Family-Initiated Treatment with that provider ends.

State laws continue to encourage autonomy for young people, but family engagement is encouraged. According to the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 71.34.010):

 “Mental health and chemical dependency professionals shall guard against needless hospitalization and deprivations of liberty, enable treatment decisions to be made in response to clinical needs in accordance with sound professional judgment, and encourage the use of voluntary services. Mental health and chemical dependency professionals shall, whenever clinically appropriate, offer less restrictive alternatives to inpatient treatment. Additionally, all mental health care and treatment providers shall assure that minors’ parents are given an opportunity to participate in the treatment decisions for their minor children.”

Guidance for Information Sharing

Federal law, 42 CFR Part 2, restricts information sharing related to substance use, and clinicians cannot share that information without a patient’s written consent, regardless of whether the substance use co-occurs with mental illness.

Providers have discretion in determining what information about mental health diagnoses and treatment is clinically appropriate to share with parents of an adolescent 13-17. A provider retains discretion in withholding information from family/caregivers to protect an adolescent’s well-being. In general, the Adolescent Behavioral Healthcare Access Act encourages sharing information to support collaboration between the clinical setting and home. Specifically, providers and families are encouraged to discuss:

  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment Plan and Progress
  • Recommended medications, including risks, benefits, side effects, typical efficacy, dosages and schedule
  • Education about the child’s mental health condition
  • Referrals to community resources
  • Coaching on parenting or behavioral management strategies
  • Crisis prevention planning and safety planning

Information about state laws related to Behavioral Health Services for Minors is available through the Washington State Legislature website under RCW 71.34.

Information about child and youth behavioral health services in Washington State is available from the Health Care Authority (HCA).