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Suicide Story Grips U.S. Senate

Lawmakers Hear of a Colleague's Grief and Back Funds for Prevention
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WebMD Health News

July 9, 2004 - It is rare for the entire U.S. Senate to agree on an issue, and rarer still for politicians to share the details of their private lives. Yet that is what happened Thursday night when several lawmakers rose in an emotional display of support for a colleague grieving a son's death from suicide.

The Senate interrupted contentious debate on a class-action lawsuits bill when Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) stood to speak about his son Garrett, who committed suicide in September at the age of 21.

Smith described Garrett's years-long struggle with learning disabilities and bipolar illness, a disease characterized by extreme emotional highs and lows and also known as manic depression. "He ultimately sought relief by taking his life," Smith said.

Lawmakers stood rapt with attention as Smith spoke about the affect of the death on him and his wife, Sharon. The couple adopted Garret when he was a few days old, Smith said.

"He was a beautiful child, a handsome baby boy," he said. Smith fought to hold back tears as he repeatedly paused during his speech, asking colleagues, "Forgive me," as he struggled to speak.

Smith was pushing for a bill that would authorize $74 million in federal spending over three years to expand the federal government's suicide prevention efforts. Senators approved the bill unanimously by the end of the evening.

"I didn't volunteer to be a champion of this issue, but it arose out of the personal experience of being a parent who lost a child to suicide and mental illness," he said.

More than 31,000 Americans die from suicide each year, and nearly 700,000 are treated in hospitals for injuries sustained in suicide attempts, according to the CDC. Suicide remains the third leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds.

Common Experience

But it was when Smith finished that several other senators rose on the floor to speak about their own experiences with suicide. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the assistant minority leader, said that his father had committed suicide after years of battling depression.

He was followed Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, who said that his father too had taken his own life. "I'm not going to go into details. But it's a lot of pain," he said.

Mental health advocates have for years criticized health insurance companies because they normally provide far less coverage for mental diseases than they do for physical ones. Lawmakers have deadlocked for several years over legislation that would force insurers to provide the same amount of insurance for both types of illnesses.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M) vowed to pass a bill he has sponsored to force the changes and to find out the names of the two lawmakers who are blocking the legislation using arcane Senate rules. Some lawmakers worry that forcing companies to offer more coverage would raise insurance premiums.

But Domenici said that such a bill would help millions of people like his adult daughter who has struggled with schizophrenia since age 13.

"We're not going to have an insurance policy that covers our hearts and not an insurance policy that covers our brains, Domenici said. "It's going to be passed in the Senate before we get out of here" for the August recess.

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