Senator Harry Reid: A Lifetime of Service to Suicide Prevention

November 04, 2016

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Jerry Reed, PhD, MSW, SPRC Director, Education Development Center, Inc.

When the 114th Congress adjourns in January, it will mark the end of the congressional career of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, one of the often unsung heroes of suicide prevention. I would like to use this column—published during the month in which we observe International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day—to offer my thanks to Senator Reid for his contribution to the field of suicide prevention and for changing the direction of my professional life. I am not certain I would have entered this field had I not been introduced to the issue by Senator Reid, for whom I worked as senior advisor on health care and aging in the late 1990s. His passion, leadership, and courage as an advocate for suicide prevention were an inspiration to me then and remain so to this very day.

In 1996, Senator Reid heard newscaster Mike Wallace testify about his experience with depression before a Senate Aging Committee hearing on mental health and the elderly. Senator Reid contributed to the discussion by describing publicly, for the very first time, how his own father died by suicide, and how it was likely related to undiagnosed depression. He also made a personal request that the committee hold hearings dedicated to investigating the toll that suicide takes among the elderly. This hearing was held. Other hearings followed, many of which featured the brave voices of people who had lost parents and other family members to suicide. These events marked the beginning of Senator Reid’s 20-year campaign to reduce the devastating impact that suicide has on our nation.

In 1997, Senator Reid introduced Senate Resolution 84, which recognized suicide as a national problem and declared suicide prevention to be a national priority. In 1999, at the request of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Senator Reid introduced a resolution designating a day in November as National Survivors for Prevention of Suicide Day. This observance has since become International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, which this year falls on Saturday, November 19. The creation of a day recognizing survivors of suicide loss marked a milestone in the field of suicide prevention and was the first national recognition of the role that loss survivors play in informing our understanding of suicide, its consequences, and its prevention. That same year, with encouragement from Senator Reid, the Surgeon General published the Call to Action to Prevent Suicide.

The contributions of Senator Reid continued into the 21st century. He was supportive in the creation of what is now called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a crisis hotline (1-800-273-8255) that anyone in the nation can call to find help. He supported the creation of the first National Strategy for Suicide Prevention in 2001, which was revised in 2012, and the passing of the Garrett Lee Smith (GLS) Memorial Act in 2004, which has funded hundreds of suicide prevention programs in states, communities, and tribes. He supported the creation of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, whose mission includes advancing the objectives of the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention; providing assistance, resources, and training to GLS grantees and other prevention programs; and working to further Zero Suicide initiatives in health care and behavioral health care settings.

Senator Reid has never stopped championing the cause of suicide prevention. He has remained a steadfast voice leading the fight against suicide and ensuring that others involved in this work receive the support and infrastructure that they need to make a difference. I would like to extend to Senator Reid the collective gratitude of everyone involved in the field of suicide prevention—as well as my personal thanks for influencing the trajectory of my career—and for all that he has done to raise public awareness and support for this major public health issue.

For More Information

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day – November 19, 2016