Reed & Murkowski Lead Bipartisan Effort to Renew Life-Saving Suicide Prevention Programs to Help Young People

With the pandemic exacerbating youth mental health challenges and rates of suicide among youth and young adults on the rise, U.S. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Reauthorization Act to enhance youth suicide prevention programs and improve mental health services for young people. 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and leading mental health experts believe the coronavirus pandemic and its related economic and social consequences have been major factors in the rising rate of youth suicide. The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Reauthorization Act would help deliver critical resources for schools, colleges, and universities in all fifty states to address mental health and prevent suicides among students. 

Senator Murkowski helped craft and pass the original Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act in 2004, and was the lead Republican on the bill’s last reauthorization in 2016. It was named to honor former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith’s son, who died by suicide in 2004 in his college apartment. The law is scheduled to expire at the end of September 2022 unless Congress renews it.

“Tragically, the fourth leading cause of death in Alaska is suicide. Our state sees rates of suicide well above the national average, and the impact of a death by suicide sends ripples of pain that sticks with families and communities forever. Unfortunately, the negative impacts of the pandemic have only exacerbated these issues—and is a reminder of why we need to act, so we can save lives and help people,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski. “I’ve long been involved in leading the reauthorization of this bipartisan legislation that will strengthen our mental health services, increase support efforts, and ultimately, save lives.”

“The rate of youth suicide is alarming and the pandemic has strained and frayed the safety net.  Congress should treat this as a national emergency and help save lives by swiftly reauthorizing this bill and ensuring young people have immediate access to mental health care. We want everyone to know that they are not alone. Help is available and we need to do appropriate outreach to young people to ensure they understand that and can get whatever support they need,” said Senator Reed. “This bipartisan effort would go a long way toward addressing the nation's behavioral health crises and strengthening mental health services for those in need.”

Since it was first enacted, the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act has delivered approximately $750 million in suicide prevention funding nationwide.

The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Reauthorization Act will help improve access to counseling for at-risk teens and promote effective suicide intervention and prevention strategies.  It will also increase federal funding for competitive grants to help states, colleges, universities, and tribes improve mental and behavioral health counseling services.  Overall, the bill authorizes the federal government to award up to $71 million annually to help states and non-profit institutions prevent youth suicide.  This includes $50 million in state and tribal grants; $9 million for the national Suicide Prevention Resource Center; and $12 million for campus grants.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide remains the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10 to 14 and adults aged 24 to 35.  While suicide was responsible for nearly 46,000 deaths in 2020, many more people attempt or have serious thoughts of suicide - critical risk factors for future suicide.

“I want to thank Senator Rosen and Senator Murkowski for their bipartisan efforts to reauthorize the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act,” said Tiel Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc., (RurAL CAP). “This program will help ensure that we address the needs of Alaska Native tribes with mental health practices that respect and honor their unique, diverse cultures, and truly connect with tribal youth across the State of Alaska.”

“Suicide affects us all and it is tragically prevalent among our state’s youth and tribal communities. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Alaska’s youth, and suicide rates are up to three times higher among Alaskan Natives than among any other racial or ethnic group. Alaskan children and teens are continuing to experience significant stressors and disruptions related to the pandemic. With Senator Murkowski’s support, we can act to affirm the commitment to improving lives of Alaskans and prevent the tragic loss of life to suicide in the future,” said James Biela, Field Ambassador, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention - Alaska Chapter.

Starting in mid-July, phone service providers will be required to route calls or text messages sent to 9-8-8 to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  The Senators are urging states and organizations in the crisis care system to do their part to be ready and ensure a smooth transition.  To help ensure a successful launch, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) made $180 million in federal funds available, including $75 million to strengthen and expand existing Lifeline operations, infrastructure, and the centralized response and backup center capacity, as well as $105 million to increase local, regional, and state crisis call center capacity and to build the workforce necessary to enhance local text and chat response.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting: HOME to 741741.