Stonington man's mental health bill to get legislative hearing

Stonington resident Ben Davol’s mission for patients to be better informed when they begin mental health counseling is taking him to the state Capitol on Tuesday, where he plans to testify in favor of a bill he suggested to state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington.

The bill, sponsored by Urban, is one of 31 on the agenda for what promises to be a marathon public hearing of the state Legislature’s Public Health Committee. Also on the agenda along with Davol’s bill is one that would outlaw so-called “conversion therapy” directed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, four bills aimed at preserving local public health agencies from a state consolidation plan; and one that would pave the way for legalization of recreational marijuana for those age 21 and older that has already prompted 35 people to submit written testimony. The hearing will take place at 10:30 a.m. in Room 2C of the Legislative Office Building.

Davol, a political and health care consultant, said his own experience as a patient led him to contact Urban to propose the bill. Under the measure, mental health professionals would be required to provide patients with a “psychotherapy information disclosure statement” that would explain the therapists’ approach and how a patient can get maximum benefit from the session, along with other information.

“It’s all about informed consent,” Davol said. “When you go to a therapist’s office, you’re very vulnerable, and the next thing you know you’re seeing this person for six months.”

Urban said she introduced the bill because she agreed there was a need patients to have a better understanding of their therapist’s qualifications and what they could expect when beginning therapy. She said there is a need for more clarity for both adult and child patients of therapists.

The co-chairmen of the Public Health Committee, she said, agreed to advance the bill to a public hearing after receiving a report she commissioned from the Office of Legislative Research. It showed sharp increases in the numbers of clinical social workers, marital and family therapists and psychologists practicing in the state from 1998 to 2014, but “no laws or regulations that require these health professionals to provide clients during an initial meeting with documents pertaining to licensure or professional qualifications.”

“This issue really resonated with me,” she said. People experiencing mental health crisis need to understand the methods a therapist will use and the therapist’s background, Urban said, “so that you don’t get a mismatch.”

Louisa Foss-Kelly, president of the Connecticut Counseling Association, said she is pleased the bill has advanced to a public hearing. The association is not taking a formal position on the bill, she said, but she is personally supportive.

In Ohio, where she previously practiced, disclosure statements were required, and several other states also require them, she said. Now, as an associate professor of counseling and school psychology at Southern Connecticut State University, she said, she teaches students that providing disclosures is good practice. The statement should cover the methods and philosophy of the therapist, ethical issues and how patients can make a complaint, among other areas, she said.

"It protects the patient," she said. "It's really is vital to explain their training and credentials and approaches to treatment. It's the professional standard" but not all therapists follow it."   

But Stephen Karp, director of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the legislation is unnecessary, and plans to submit testimony on behalf of his group opposing the measure. His group represents 2,600 licensed social workers, about 1,000 of whom are mental health counselors. Most counselors already voluntarily provide patients with the information the bill would require, he said.

“This is really common practice in the initial session to provide information on treatment methods, fees and the parameters of treatment,” he said. “This would duplicate what’s already happening. It would be an unnecessary step and additional piece of paper.”

He added that there is already a mechanism for patients to make complaints about a therapist to the state Department of Public Health.

While Davol’s bill is thus far sponsored only by Urban, the one that would ban “conversion therapy” has bipartisan support from 64 co-sponsors, in addition to its original sponsors, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford. Among local representatives signed on as co-sponsors are Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville; Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London; Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme; and Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton.

Testimony supporting the bill has already been submitted by four residents, as well as the Human Rights Campaign, the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition and the Connecticut Psychiatric Society.

“Since 1973, the American Psychiatric Association has held the position that homosexuality per se is not a diagnosable mental disorder,” the psychiatric society’s letter states. “Therefore, it does not require treatment or therapy. Conversion therapy or reparative therapy has not been shown to have any scientific basis whatsoever.”

Attached to the letter was a Feb. 20 article in JAMA Pediatrics about a recent study demonstrating decreases in suicide rates for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth after states passed same-sex marriage laws.

“This study demonstrates the positive public health effect of societal acceptance and equal treatment of gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals,” the letter states. “Conversion therapy has the opposite effect, making youth feel stigmatized and causing them emotional harm because they are told they are not normal and have to be ‘fixed.’… It is unfortunate that a bill such as this has to be considered, but this therapy is still practiced and should be outlawed.”

j.benson@theday.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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