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Mental Health in the Senate

July 8, 2004 - 9:32 p.m.

Senators Share Personal Stories as Chamber Passes Suicide Prevention Bill
By Mary Agnes Carey, CQ Staff

Gordon H. Smith choked back sobs, struggling to get his words out.

The Senate was about to pass the Garrett Lee Smith bill - an authorization of a new suicide prevention program named for the Oregon Republican's son, who died less than a year ago, one day short of his 22nd birthday.

Smith remembered Garrett as an infant - "a beautiful child, a handsome baby boy" - as a dyslexic student unable to read well, and finally as a determined young man pushing to achieve and finding no effective treatment for his bipolar disorder.

"He suffered emotional pain that I cannot begin to comprehend," said Smith. "He ultimately sought relief by taking his life."

There's "no owner's manual to help you bury a child, especially when the cause is suicide," he said, "So I've committed myself to trying to find meaning in Garrett's life."

The legislation would authorize federal support for state suicide prevention programs.

Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he, too, was part of a family that had to cope with a suicide.

His mother called; "I picked up the phone. She said, 'Your Pop shot himself,' " Reid said. "For a long, long time, I was embarrassed, didn't know how to handle that."

Had the legislation passed Thursday been on the books, Reid said, "my dad may not have had all the problems that he had as he proceeded through life."

As Reid spoke, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., reached out to Smith in what started as a handshake but turned into a hug. Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hugged him, too. So did Democrats Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who had helped to write the bill. Democrat Richard J. Durbin of Illinois shook Smith's hand.

Then Don Nickles, R-Okla., asked to speak.

"I have a similar experience," he said. "My father also committed suicide. I'm not going to go into the details but it's a lot of pain."

"I have no doubt as a result of us passing this legislation we'll end up saving a lot of lives," Nickles said.

The bill would establish grants for suicide intervention efforts directed at youths and would authorize creation of a technical assistance center to help local and state providers of suicide prevention programs. It would also establish a grant program directed at suicide prevention programs on college campuses.

As Smith listened to the floor statements of Reid, Nickles, Dodd and Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, he wiped away tears.

An aide showed up with a box of tissues. That made Smith laugh, but he took about five of them.

The bill was later passed by voice vote.

Source: CQ Today
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Julio C Abreu
Director, Government Affairs
National Mental Health Association

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202-675-8389 fax number