From today's Wash Post:
Sen. Gordon H. Smith faced a fundamental choice after his son committed suicide in 2003, the day before his 22nd birthday. He could end his political career and live out his years in an agony of "what ifs" and "whys." Or he could rededicate his professional life and powerful position to trying to make something positive come from the tragedy.
Staggered by grief, the Oregon Republican and devout Mormon seriously weighed the first option. But a church leader persuaded him to mourn his son and then "get back to work." Part of that work is a new book on a subject that cannot get too much attention: a plea for Americans to learn more about depression and suicide, and to confront mental illness openly, without embarrassment or prejudice.
"Remembering Garrett" is a straightforward, simply written account of one child's descent into despair and the nearly unbearable heartbreak his family endures.
Famous or powerful people can do more than suffer in private, however, and Smith has chosen to try, as he puts it, "to bring suicide's brutal toll and mental health's subordinate status out of the shadows. The shame and stigma our society feels about mental health must stop, and our national conversation needs to begin."
Throughout the book, Smith takes care to blame no one, except perhaps himself, for misdiagnosing Garrett's condition or missing possible warning signs. His only ire is aimed at several unnamed House Republicans who complicated his bid to enact legislation intended to combat youth depression and suicide.
Other senators previously drafted two bills, but they rolled them into one, named it the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, and let Smith take the lead in pushing it. It called for federally funded screening of school-age children "to detect those predisposed to depression and suicide," and for funds to combat suicide at colleges.
The Senate unanimously approved the legislation, but some House conservatives objected. Smith tried to address their concerns, but writes that he was "appalled by some of their responses. " 'Your bill has Democrat sponsors!' said one. 'We don't pass bills over here that Democrats want!' "
The House approved the bill only after several changes were made, including a provision that permits the school screening only for children whose parents request it.
One wishes Smith had named names. Plausible arguments can be made for and against federal spending for mental health screening and intervention. But to attack or push a bill in order to hurt the other political party is all too typical of the partisanship that poisons today's Congress, and Smith's account of his House negotiations adds a bitter note to a book already replete with heartache.
Smith, generally labeled a moderate Republican, says he gave modest thought to such issues before his son's death. But now, he writes, "my heart has softened," and he proudly notes that he has defied GOP leaders by opposing cuts to Medicaid, food stamps "and other safety-net programs that serve the underprivileged." Whatever one thinks of his political reawakening, none can dispute that the price was unspeakable.