Conservative House Republicans refused to pass suicide prevention legislation until it was amended to require that parental permission be obtained before these programs take place in schools. The Garret Lee Smith Memorial Act (S. 2634/ H.R. 4799) would set aside $82 million over the next three years to identify and treat middle school through college-aged youth who are at high risk for suicide.
The same bill received overwhelming bi-partisan support in the Senate and was passed without much debate in July. Senator Chris Dodd (D-CN) is the original sponsor of the bill which has the support of such organizations as the American Council on Education (ACE) and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).
The passage of the bill was marked in the Senate by the speech of Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR). Senator Smith lost his own son to suicide last year and the bill bears his son's name. Senator Smith was commended by fellow Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) for speaking publicly about his family's loss. In Senator Hatch's state of Utah, the suicide rate among young people ages 15 to 19 has increased 150% over the past 20 years.1 Senator Smith's son Garrett was away at college in Utah when he decided to end his life.
The most vocal opponents of the legislation in the House of Representatives were Representatives Scott Garrett (R-NJ) and Peter King (R-IA). Using the convenient mantra of smaller government, these conservative lawmakers questioned the success of suicide prevention programs in general. Representative Garrett argued that the government should not be footing the bill for the treatment of suicidal youth. He stated, "If your child has any other life-threatening medical condition, obviously we're not taking care of that. Once that door is open, the cost is prohibitive."2
In contrast, however, Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) argued that suicide prevention is a valid public health concern due to the prevalence of the problem and his view that "every life that we save is a future productive citizen who is going to contribute to our society and to our country."3 Representative Barton also noted that any grant money from the legislation would be subject to outcome-based assessments thus helping to ensure that funding goes to programs with positive results.
The controversial parental permission clause requires written parental consent before students could attend a suicide prevention program except in the case of an emergency situation when students could receive services without prior permission. Some representatives, like Greg Walden (R-OR), felt comfortable voting for the bill only after the amendment was added. In his statement, Walden presented the parental consent amendment as a positive addition because it does not force students to attend suicide prevention programs.4 Conservative publications like the National Review also support the view that only parents know best how to inform and educate their children.5
This stipulation, however, may have serious consequences on the overall impact of the legislation. Lesbian and gay youth will be disproportionately affected, as they are up to five times more likely to attempt suicide.6 The amendment could also limit this group's access to services and help. According to an article in the Journal of Adolescent Research, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth are at an increased risk for isolation, shame, rejection (or fear of rejection) from family and peers, and violence from family and peers.7
This amendment may also negatively impact the greater student population. In its support of the original bill the American Psychological Association (APA) cited CDC statistics that rank suicide as the third leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24.8 The funds allotted through the legislation would work to prevent the nearly 4,000 youth suicides that occur each year.
The APA noted that this legislation will partially fund the Campus Care and Counseling Act and expressed concern that the parental permission requirement will limit young people's access to this and other direct services. The APA is concerned that youth who do not feel comfortable talking with their parents would be less likely to receive assistance or counseling which would ultimately "undermine the fundamental premise that the bill aims to address."9
Once amended, the legislation was still opposed by 64 Representatives, all of whom are Republicans. Organizations like the American Council on Education and the National Mental Health Association disapprove of the changes, but have commended Congress on the allocation of funds for suicide prevention.
SIECUS' director of public policy, Bill Smith, commented that "conservative ideologues in the House have once again undermined an otherwise positive measure to help safeguard our youth. This tired strategy of scaring parents into believing their authority is being usurped will yet again result in a failure to provide information to young people in need."
Despite the commotion the amendment caused, the bill was passed in the House on September 9th by a vote of 352 to 64 and the President is expected to sign it into law shortly.
- O. Hatch, "Floor Statement: Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act," July 9, 2004.
- J. Barnett, "Congress Gives OK to Smith Suicide Bill," The Oregonian (OR), September 10, 2004.
- J. Barton, Congressional Record, September 8, 2004. Accessed online on September 24, 2004.
- G. Walden, "House Overwhelmingly Passes Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act," Press Release. September 9th, 2004.
- K.J. Lopez, "Death In the Classroom," The National Review (Online), September 8, 2004.
- J. Fleischer & J. Fillman, "Lesbian and Gay Youth: Treatment Issues," The Counselor, (1995) Vol. 13, No. 1, 2, 27-28.
- S.L. Hershberger et al., "Predictors of Suicide Attempts Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth." Journal of Adolescent Research, (1997) Vol. 12, No. 4, 20, 477-497.
- N.B. Anderson, "APA Letter on the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act (S.2634) to Leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives," September 9th, 2004.