WASHINGTON, DC – 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 (S. 4271) 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 would help deliver critical resources for schools, colleges, and universities in all fifty states to address mental health and prevent suicides among students. 

Senator Reed helped craft and pass the original Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act in 2004.  It was named to honor former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith’s (R-OR) son, who died by suicide that same year in his college apartment.  The law was last re-authorized by Congress in 2016 and is scheduled to expire at the end of September unless Congress renews it.

“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 and comprehensive 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 the support they need,” said Senator Jack 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.”

“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.”

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 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.

“The American Psychological Association applauds Senators Reed and Murkowski for their bipartisan work on this bill to reauthorize the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act,” said Jaime “Jim” Diaz-Granados, APA’s deputy CEO. “By increasing funding for this critical program, the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Reauthorization Act recognizes the significant need for mental health and suicide prevention services among our nation’s youth, including on college campuses, and better targets it towards under-resourced institutions of higher education, such as those that serve predominantly students of color.”

“Young people need our support more than ever. The unprecedented levels of social isolation and mental health trauma that the pandemic caused for youth will have ripple effects for years to come.  Reauthorizing this grant program is an important, life-saving investment in the future of our nation,” said Mark Barden, co-founder, and CEO of the Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund and father of Daniel, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. “We thank Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) for their crucial bipartisan leadership in protecting children by increasing support for the Garrett Lee Smith program.”

In addition to this legislation, Senator Reed also helped write and pass a law to designate 9-8-8 as the three digit phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).  Similar to how 9-1-1 connects callers to emergency police dispatchers, the new three-digit 9-8-8 Lifeline number will connect people in crisis to a suicide prevention support system operating 24 hours a day, staffed by trained dispatchers who specialize in helping people experiencing mental-health and substance-use emergencies.

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.