Mental health experts, including APA member Cheryl King, PhD, spoke about ways to prevent youth suicide at a March 2 hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) chaired the event and Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) attended. APA's Public Policy Office arranged for King's testimony following an invitation from DeWine's office.
"I wish this hearing was not necessary, yet we all know that it is," said Dodd at the hearing. "Youth suicide is a public and mental health tragedy that knows no geographic, racial, ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic boundaries." Dodd mentioned bipartisan legislation he introduced with DeWine in early March to provide $25 million to develop and expand federal, state and community-level youth suicide-prevention programs.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1980 to 1997, the rate of suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds increased by 11 percent, and among 10- to 14-year-olds it increased by 109 percent.
"A series of highly visible events have created an historic juncture for suicide-prevention efforts," King said, referencing former Surgeon General David Satcher's 1999 call to action to prevent suicide, the Institute of Medicine's 2002 publication "Reducing Suicide: A National Imperative," and a recent report of the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. "Now is the time, and this is the year, to take action," King said.
King, of the University of Michigan, said that effective suicide prevention methods would include community-wide education such as public service announcements, school-based health classes, selective interventions like evidence-based treatments for depression and alcohol abuse, and restriction of gun access.
King and the rest of the panel followed emotional testimony by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and his wife, Sharon, whose 21-year-old son Garrett committed suicide last September. According to the senator, Garrett Smith had struggled with bipolar disorder for many years. Pausing occasionally to collect himself, Smith spoke of his son's troubled life and death.
"He was a beautiful boy, and I loved him completely without completely understanding him," Smith said.
Smith said he and his wife were speaking about the death for the first time publicly to help others at risk for suicide. He noted that he will soon introduce a bill with some of his Senate colleagues--the Campus Care and Counseling Act--to help achieve this goal. The bill, which was developed by education policy staff in APA's Public Policy Office, would provide funds to increase access to mental and behavioral health services on college campuses, in order to serve increasing numbers of students and handle the increasing severity of their needs.