WASHINGTON – Congress passed legislation Thursday that sets aside $82 million over the next three years for programs to help prevent youth suicide.
The votes came a year and a day after Sen. Gordon Smith’s son, Garrett, killed himself. Thursday would have been the younger Smith’s 23rd birthday.
The senator sponsored the bill as a tribute to his son and an attempt to help other families avoid the pain of suicide. The House approved the bill 352-64; the Senate approved it on a voice vote. The bill now goes to the White House.
“No family should experience the pain of losing a child and no child should face the challenges of mental illness alone,” said Gordon Smith, R-Ore. “This legislation tells parents and children that we know their struggles and that help is out there.”
The bill would authorize $82 million over three years to provide grants to states, Indian tribes, colleges and universities to develop youth suicide prevention and intervention programs.
It would emphasize screening programs that identify mental illness in children as young as sixth-graders, and provide referrals for community-based treatment and training for child care professionals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3,000 children and young adults take their lives each year, making suicide the third-leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 24.
Reps. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., have lost teenage sons to suicide.
During House debate, some lawmakers questioned the effectiveness of suicide prevention programs, saying some well-intentioned programs end up doing more harm than good.
Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., cited a Michigan case in which a second-grade boy killed himself after watching a film in a suicide prevention class. People who knew the boy said he was not depressed at the time of his death and may have been mimicking what he saw in the film, Garrett said.
In the movie, a boy who tried to hang himself was rescued by his friends. “In real life that did not occur,” Garrett said.
Rep. Tom Osborne, a former football coach at the University of Nebraska, said coaches and teachers can work to identify signs of depression.
“There are very, very few suicides which occur where there are not some indications,” said Osborne, R-Neb. “It may be a term paper, a theme, a comment in the locker room. So we can build awareness with those people who work with young people, and that is important.”
Jerry Reed, executive director of the Suicide Prevention Action Network, said: “Senator Smith’s courage in making his personal loss public was a great service to the over 4,000 families who lose a young loved one to suicide each year. This act will allow young people to get the help they need.”