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Professional News
Father Turns Family Tragedy Into Promising New Law
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 20 page 13-31

"Dear family and friends, I have wanted to do this for years," the suicide note stated. "There will most likely be a lot of people who will wonder why, but just not understand. The one thing I have done is given up. I can't handle it anymore...."

These are the last words of Utah Valley State College student Garrett Smith, who took his own life a day short of his 22nd birthday on September 8, 2003, in his apartment in Orem, Utah.

On what would have been his son's 23rd birthday, Garrett's father, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) stepped forward to accept an award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) commending Smith and his wife, Sharon, for their legislative accomplishment to prevent teen suicide. The presentation was part of the opening plenary session at NAMI's annual conference in September in Washington, D.C.

It was a bittersweet occasion for Smith, who before recounting some of the difficulties Garrett experienced as a youngster with bipolar disorder, announced the progress of legislation he introduced and named after his son.

"Today, on his birthday, the House of Representatives in an overwhelming and bipartisan vote passed the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act," Smith told attendees.

The bill, which President George Bush is expected to sign, would expand suicide-prevention programs and improve counseling services on college campuses (see box).FIG1

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Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) addresses attendees at NAMI's annual conference last month on what would have been his son's 23rd birthday. 

"This piece of legislation is a modest beginning.. .and on this legislation, you and I can build into the future to help people who, like Garrett, have mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, which can be lethal if left untreated," Smith said.

The Smiths adopted Garrett a few days after his birth, and Smith remembered him as an "unusually happy and playful baby boy" but noted that his "exuberance for life dimmed in his elementary years."

It was during this time that Garrett began to struggle in school. Although tests showed that he had a high I.Q., he also had learning disabilities, including dyslexia.

"His struggles in school increased, while his self-worth decreased," Smith said, and his son would "cry himself to sleep out of fear that he could not compete in school."

Although Garrett accomplished two of his major goals—to graduate from high school and fulfill a two-year mission for his church—his parents saw Garrett experience bouts of "dangerous mental darkness," Smith noted. "He would withdraw from us, and no rational persuasion could draw him back."

Garrett sought help from school counselors, psychologists, and a psychiatrist, but did not recover.

"Garrett's bipolar condition was a cancer to him, as lethal as leukemia to another," Smith said. "It filled his spirit with hopelessness and clouded his future in darkness."

Garrett's mother, Sharon, also spoke about her son in a later session on mental health advocacy on college campuses.

She remembered her son as a "happy, outgoing young man" with" a very gentle soul" and said, "to think of him taking his life when I can't imagine him ever hurting anyone is very difficult to understand."

Although Garrett fought for many years to overcome the challenges in his life, Sharon Smith said, college presented new challenges that "we as his parents did not expect, and in hindsight, I don't even think Garrett believed he would encounter."

College, she noted, "is a time when young people may lack the supports they once had" and sometimes feel isolated or alone.

"Like you, I am working to find ways to improve mental health resources available to college students, with the goal of putting an end to suicide," Sharon Smith said, "but we have a long way to go."

She pointed out that there are more than 30,000 suicides each year in the U.S. and that suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses.

"We can work together to ensure that a network of providers exists to provide treatment so students can either get or continue receiving mental health care while they are away at school," she emphasized. "Most importantly, we need to train students and faculty about the proper response necessary to intervene when a student is in crisis."

Smith concluded by reading part of the farewell note Garrett wrote shortly before he committed suicide: "Mom and Dad, if it is any consolation, your love is the only thing I knew would not change. I just wish I could feel the same about myself."

More information about the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act can be accessed online at<thomas.loc.gov> by searching on bill number, S 2634.

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Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) addresses attendees at NAMI's annual conference last month on what would have been his son's 23rd birthday. 

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