Religious Freedom Bill Would Make LGBTQ Youth With Mental Illness Even More Vulnerable

The Texas Senate is considering a bill designed to protect professionals who deny services to clients as long as the professional's conduct or speech is based on sincerely held religious beliefs. Perhaps there is no population that will be more adversely impacted by this legislation than LGBTQ youth in Texas in need of critical mental health services.While Senate Bill 17 includes language that prohibits providers from withholding care that would prevent death or imminent serious bodily injury, it is unlikely that this clause would do much to address depression, self-harm and suicide. Youth who confide in mental health professionals that they are depressed, suicidal or at risk of self-harm rarely do so before first building some level of trust and rapport. Mental health providers who deny services for religious reasons may do so before being fully aware of the imminent risks facing an LGBTQ youth. LGBTQ youth are more vulnerable to depression, self-harm and suicide than nearly any other group of young people. LGBTQ youth are five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A recent piece published in Pediatrics showed that while 14 percent of total adolescents reported attempting suicide, more than half of female-to-male transgender teenagers attempted suicide, as did 30 percent of male-to-female transgender teenagers.Given that many LGBTQ youth who decide to seek out mental health services have experienced some form of rejection from their families, protecting mental health professionals who deny services will only further reinforce the shame and rejection the patients experience at home. Youth who are rejected by their families are eight times as likely to be suicidal and 6 times as likely to be depressed than those in accepting families, according to the research in Pediatrics.Many of those LGBTQ youth who experience rejection reside in rural counties where mental health resources are already scarce. Proponents of this bill will argue that youth can simply seek out a mental health provider whose religious beliefs don't conflict with their sexual orientation or gender identity. The reality for many LGBTQ youth, especially those in rural areas, is that another option might not exist.Last session the Texas Legislature passed sweeping measures that provided foster parents and other caretakers similar religious refusal rights that have profoundly impacted youth in foster care and homeless youth. Nearly 1 in 3 teens in foster care have LGBTQ identities. With religious refusal protections for mental health professionals now being considered, we have to begin to wonder where vulnerable LGBTQ youth can turn for help.LGBTQ youth report mental illness at a rate that is nearly three times that of non-LGBTQ youth, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and experience nearly every form of childhood maltreatment at disproportionately high rates. Mental health professionals are often the lifelines for LGBTQ youth who are rejected by their families, peers and schools. Instead of seeking out new and unnecessary ways to further marginalize LGBTQ youth, our state's lawmakers should be working to provide mental health providers with the training and resources they need to provide supportive and empowering care.One of the first lessons taught to mental health professionals is that their own values and beliefs should never outweigh the safety, rights and best interests of a client. While the stated intentions of this bill are to protect a professional's religious beliefs, the outcomes would be detrimental for LGBTQ youth in Texas who could be denied life-saving services. This bill is overreaching and unnecessary, and it will cause significant harm to one of our state's most vulnerable populations.Adam McCormick is an assistant professor of social work at St. Edward's University. Meagan Biscamp is a senior social work student at St. Edward's University. They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.   Continue reading...

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