“The shame and stigma our society feels about mental health must stop, and our national conversation needs to begin” — US Senator Gordon Smith
During the summer of 2006, around the time I started working here at the NNL, the Nodaway County Health Department received funding to open a suicide prevention resource center.
I was assigned to report on the center, and from that initial article, other things came my way. I was later asked to be a media presence on the Mental Health Task Force, and with a husband and son who both have a mental illness, my interest in this subject matter continued to rise.
Several months ago, Sue Frizzell, the current project coordinator for the resource center, gave me some new information, part of which was the story of Senator Smith from Oregon and his son, Garrett, who tragically took his own life at the age of 21.
From there, I found a book written by the Senator, “Remembering Garrett,” which I highly recommend.
I was so deeply touched by Garrett’s story that I wanted to share it — to help stop the stigma and start a conversation here with you as readers.
Garrett Smith seemed to be an average kid growing up in Oregon, and after graduating from high school, he decided to go on a mission for his church. When filling out the health questionnaire, he marked yes on the question about depression.
First shocked, and then concerned, his parents inquired to know more, but Garrett reassured them he was fine.
Several months after returning home from the mission, Garrett finally opened up to his parents about how he was feeling.
He told them he felt his life was “hopeless and valueless, his future futile.” He said he was tired of being a burden and an embarrassment. Pain and darkness clouded each day, and “he dreaded the dawn, knowing it would only bring more anguish than the one before.” The suffering of his mind was so painful that he told them he thought he might take his own life.
Sen. Smith said, “My son, I now fully realized, was mentally or emotionally ill–I didn’t know which, or the difference. Nor did I know how to help.”
Garrett agreed to see a psychiatrist, but tragically, it came too late.
During the last few days of his life, seemingly small events – which for most us would mean disappointment or frustration – became, as Sen. Smith said, Garrett’s “death sentence” and he took his own life.
He said, “It is hard for me to fathom how anguished and tormented a soul he had become, how hopeless and alone he felt in mind and spirit…To say to someone with manic depression or bipolar disorder, ‘Come on, buck up. Get to work!’ is the equivalent of demanding a diabetic to make insulin. If you’ve never been swallowed by that infinite bleakness and hopelessness that accompanies manic depression, it’s almost impossible to imagine.”
In the weeks following his son’s death, Sen. Smith met with Garrett’s psychiatrist, who told him that Garrett had not killed himself to hurt his family or because of them, but because he was truly sick.
Sen. Smith also met with Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, who also suffers from bipolar disorder. She explained that suicide has the “ability to undermine, overwhelm, outwit, devastate, and destroy” people.
The Smiths soon turned their grief into campaigning to rid the stigma involved with mental illness and to the preventing of youth suicide.
In Washington, the Senator proposed a bill to the 108th Congress. And in October of 2004, President Bush signed the nation’s first youth suicide prevention bill into law, the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. The legislation authorized funding to suicide prevention efforts and initiatives.
Among those recipients was the Missouri Department of Mental Health, one of only 13 agencies across the country, through which the resource center at the county health department was funded. Also, Northwest Missouri State University was one of only 23 colleges to receive this funding.
Approximately 700 Missourians die each year by suicide, or about two every day. Through the Garrett Smith Memorial Act, help is being offered, hope is being established and the stigma is being reduced.
The darkness of this disease can be unbearable, unimaginable, unthinkable. But don’t be afraid to get yourself or your loved one the help they need or to talk about it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, no more than having cancer, asthma or high blood pressure.
You’re not alone. There is help and there is hope. People like Sen. Smith are giving us all, especially me, even more of that hope.
Stop the stigma, start the conversation.
If you need help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.