The Enduring Legacy of My Son, Garrett

September 09, 2013

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Gordon Smith, President and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters

Today, September 9, brings to mind some of the most wonderful times in my life and also the saddest. You see, on this day 32 years ago, my precious son Garrett came into my wife Sharon’s and my life. He was a beautiful baby who soon grew into a kind and generous boy. However, this same day 10 years ago was the first time Sharon and I awoke with the knowledge that Garrett no longer was on this Earth. 

Sadly, the day before, we received the news that Garrett had taken his life in his college apartment in Utah. Even in his death, Garrett was a kind and considerate boy. He gave away some of his most precious possessions, ensured the safety of his beloved dog Oliver, and wrote a note absolving Sharon and me of any fault. 

Yet, in looking back over Garrett’s life, we realized we were ignorant of the signs of mental illness and because of that Garrett struggled for much of his life with an undiagnosed ailment.  While he began receiving care close to the time of his death, we knew it came too late and we wondered how different his life would have been had we known of his struggle and connected him to care much earlier in his young life.

However, in Garrett’s death came a call to action. I became and continue to be focused on helping other young people and adults who struggle with mental illness and who are at risk for suicide. In Garrett’s memory, an outstanding piece of legislation was enacted into law – the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. It was passed by the U.S. Senate with support from all 100 Senators and passed the U.S. House of Representatives with significant bipartisan support.  President George W. Bush signed it into law on October 21, 2004. And to this day, the programs that bear Garrett’s name continue to receive full funding and wide bipartisan support.

It is through these programs that millions of Americans have been helped. The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act provides states, tribal nations and organizations, and colleges and universities with much needed funding to create and implement youth suicide prevention plans with a significant focus on early identification. To date, 49 states, DC and Guam, and 46 tribal organizations have received funding, as well as 135 institutions of higher learning. Further, through the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, more than 600,000 people have been trained in suicide prevention, including teachers, coaches and other youth-serving individuals. The law also authorizes and funds the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). The center’s key functions are to provide technical assistance, training and resources to federal grantees. The SPRC also works closely with the federally funded National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) (1-800-273-TALK) and its network of more than 160 crisis centers. Lifeline provides free and confidential support to people in suicidal or emotional distress, including veterans, active military, and their families and friends. This year, the Lifeline expects to answer more than 1.1 million calls.

While early identification efforts and training to recognize the signs of mental illness and suicidality are important to saving lives, access to evidence-based treatment is the most critical component – and often the most difficult to achieve. That is why I was so pleased to support the Paul Wellstone and Pete Dominici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Enacted at the end of 2008, this law, once fully implemented, will help ensure persons in need of treatment receive it. The law eliminates the differentiation in cost between physical and mental illnesses and will further reduce the stigma of mental illness. 

I was honored to accept the appointment by Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to serve as the private sector co-chair of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Created in 2010, the Action Alliance has a mission of advancing the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention by championing suicide prevention as a national priority, catalyzing efforts to implement high priority objectives, and cultivating the resources needed to sustain progress in suicide prevention. I am privileged to be joined by the public sector co-chair, John M. McHugh, Secretary of the U.S. Army. Our aspirational goal is to save 20,000 lives over the next five years.

In Garrett’s memory, Sharon and I continue to try and find meaning in helping others. This past July, with support and funding from the members of the National Association of Broadcasters, I was able to launch the OK2TALK media campaign. As these public service announcements have hit the airwaves, public awareness about mental illness and assistance in connecting with care is growing exponentially. In just the first month, the PSAs have been aired on TV over 48,000 times and on radio 3,300 times. The total financial accounting of this free airtime totals $6.9 million. America’s broadcasters should be commended for their generosity and support. To ensure people receive needed care, HHS launched in conjunction with our effort a new website, and we launched a Tumblr page. To date, the Tumblr page has had 198,000 page views; 100,000 total visits; 13,900 followers; 774 submissions; 22,000 engagements; and 17,000 have clicked “Get Help” to access hotline resources.

While Sharon and I will never stop longing to see and hold our precious son just one more time, we do rejoice in the knowledge that in his death has come so much good. On this day, the day that Garrett would have turned 32, I invite all of you to join us in celebrating all of the outstanding accomplishments our nation has made in the past 10 years to expand access to mental health identification and treatment, and to reduce the tragic event of suicide. We also call on you to continue the fight, continue working to save lives one person at a time.

Gordon H. Smith

President and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters

Former U.S. Senator from the State of Oregon

Private Sector Co-Chair, Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention