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Should kids be allowed to see shrinks without parents' consent?

Dr. Wendy Lee Walsh writes: You might recognize me. I am that stressed-out mother you saw on your flight with the baby having the ear-shattering meltdown. Or maybe she was a toddler, or child. Or perhaps you've seen me attempting to soothe my kid while you were trying to eat a peaceful dinner in a restaurant. Or perhaps you've seen me apologizing because my child's selective mutism had come off as

Dr. Wendy Lee Walsh writes: You might recognize me. I am that stressed-out mother you saw on your flight with the baby having the ear-shattering meltdown. Or maybe she was a toddler, or child. Or perhaps you've seen me attempting to soothe my kid while you were trying to eat a peaceful dinner in a restaurant. Or perhaps you've seen me apologizing because my child's selective mutism had come off as rudeness. If you are a school administrator, you've seen me begging for assessments or psychological services because I suspect my child has a pervasive developmental or sensory disorder.

But my kid is lucky. I have no shame about mental health symptoms or services. Other kids aren't so fortunate.

The scenarios are tragic and heartbreaking. Imagine this: A middle schooler, bullied because of his emerging sexual orientation, can't tell his parents because their religious beliefs might bring him more punishment. And he can't talk to a counselor without his parents’ consent.

Or this: A twelve-year-old girl is being sexually molested by her step-father while her mother is blind with love for this perpetrator and the family financially dependent on him. She can't breathe a word of the crime to her school psychologist without getting Mom to agree.

And this one: An abused child of drug-addicted parents runs away and becomes homeless. At fourteen, after living on the street for two years, his life is so dismal that he contemplates suicide. A social services agency finds him and wants to intervene. But they can't until they track down the deadbeat parents and get their permission.

Thanks to a new law in California that takes effect January 1st, 2011, all these minors will be able to get help without a nod from Mom and Dad. According to the new law, minors 12 and over can get mental health services without parental consent. In the past, this freedom was only awarded to children who were abused by their parents. The author of the bill made a clear case that the old law discriminated against some kids -- including gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender youth, youth from immigrant families, homeless youth, and youth from cultural backgrounds that do not believe in mental health services.

The statistics are dismal. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that one in five children and adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder and that two-thirds of those kids are not getting the help they need. And they need it young. Anxiety and depression can lead to substance abuse, eating disorders, and even suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds (approximately 5,000 young people a year) and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 15-year olds, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

As a doctor of psychology, I continually emphasize that the key to youth mental health is early intervention. It is crucial that adolescents get talk-therapy before their symptoms include drug abuse or other self-damaging behaviors. And, in case you're wondering, the law does not give practitioners the right to perform electro-shock or drug therapy without parental consent.

Opponents of the law include parents who worry about eroding parental rights. I remind you that the way to ensure that your kids "keep you in the loop" is to keep the door of communication open when they are young. Don't be afraid to talk about whatever your children bring up, whether it be drug use, crime or sexuality, and be prepared to seek help together when you don't have all the answers. That will send the message to your child that they are safe to come to you with any problem.

Besides the new California law, youth mental health is in the spotlight this month for another reason, thanks to Los Angeles Laker Ron Artest. Last spring, I silently cheered when Artest, minutes after helping the Lakers win an NBA Championship, thanked his psychotherapist on national television. Then, last month, he announced on CNN's “Larry King Live” that he would auction off his priceless championship ring to benefit youth mental health. 

Artest has come a long way since 2003, when “ESPN The Magazine” called him "The Scariest Man in Basketball." His violent outbursts were legendary, including attacking a fan who had thrown a cup at him during a game. These days the NBA champion, a former child of divorce, domestic violence, and tragic sibling death, sits across from Larry King unashamed to talk about his mental health. He explained that he has been the beneficiary of anger management therapy, marital therapy and even parenting classes. And he swears it all worked for him.  

His website crashed during the show as people flocked to pledge as little as $2 per ticket to become a lottery hopeful to win Artest's championship ring. (I personally hope that whoever wins it does the classy thing of returning it to Artest.) Artest hopes the Christmas Day lottery will raise millions to bring free or subsidized health care to youth who are suffering emotionally. You can enter here.

And the new law in California will make it so much easier for suffering children to get the help they deserve. Kudos to California. And three cheers for Ron Artest.

Dr. Wendy Walsh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. As a psychological assistant registered with the California Board of Psychology, Dr. Walsh has treated individuals, couples and families for a variety of mental health concerns including personality disorders, anger management, eating and substance disorders, and depression.