A group of New Jersey teens just made history by helping to get a bill passed that now makes it much more easier for the youth in their community to obtain therapy and counseling services.
It all started three years ago, when Jordan Thomas, then 16, decided he needed to talk to a counselor.
At the time, Thomas was experiencing emotional and physical abuse at home, and he wanted to talk to a professional. Because Thomas was a minor, New Jersey law said he needed the consent of a guardian to do so. But when Thomas asked his mother for permission, she said no.
“I have no idea why she would say no,” said Thomas, now a freshman at Rutgers University. “All I know is that she did say that.”
Thomas, now 19, was never able to get his mother’s permission, but his experience ignited in him a desire to fix the system. Working with his peers at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hudson County, Thomas helped fix the law that had stopped him from accessing mental health services.
Thomas and the BGCHC were the driving forces behind the Boys & Girls Clubs Keystone Law, which passed this month in New Jersey. Thanks to their efforts, New Jersey minors no longer need permission from a guardian to receive therapy.
Not every teen experiencing abuse is as lucky as Thomas, who had a support system of peers and adults in the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hudson County, of which he was president in 2014. He ended up entering the foster care system just a few months after his request for counseling was rejected.
At the same time that Thomas was struggling to find help, the Keystone Club — the service branch of the BGCHC — was looking for ways to address the problem of teen suicide. In 2014, the National Keystone Project called on participants to address the issue. Jordan shared his story with Keystone members, leading others to speak up about their own experiences.
“A parent might not want to give consent to a kid seeking mental health services… because sometimes they might not want outside people to know what’s going on in their house,” said Damiya Critten, 19, a member of BGCHC’s Keystone Club. “They might say, ‘What happens in the house stays in the house.'”
The teens met with the family of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who took his own life in 2010 after being cyberbullied. They also met with state Assemblymen Carmelo Garcia and Raj Mukherji, who agreed to sponsor a bill on the topic. In October 2014, four members of the BGCHC testified before the New Jersey Legislature.
“[Thomas] ended his testimony saying that he easily could have become another teen suicide statistic had it not been for the Boys and Girls [Clubs] and the support he got here,” said Janet Wallach, director of program development and teen services at BGCHC. “But not every child in New Jersey has that support, and he wants to make sure there are not other young people in that situation.”
The teens said the two-year process of getting the bill passed was a lesson in civics for all of them.
“It gave me inspiration that I don’t have to just be a citizen,” said Dajiah Keahey, now a freshman at New Jersey City University. “I could be an active citizen and change things.”
“At the beginning of the process, they thought an assembly was a meeting you have in school,” said Wallach. “They have gone through the entire political process over two years.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.