Franklin James Cook

National Youth Prevention Workers Praised by Survivor Leaders

In Prevention on January 8, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Sen. Gordon and Sharon Smith (Photo by Ross William Hamilton, The Oregonian)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

There has been a brief hiatus in fresh news posts on SPNAC because, all this week, I’ve been in Phoenix, Arizona, attending a conference of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grantees who are delivering youth suicide prevention programs funded under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act.

In opening remarks on Monday, Richard McKeon of SAMHSA outlined the theme of the conference, saying “we ourselves, all of us here today, constitute a community of hope,” noting that the GLSMA grants represent “the first time the United States has ever made funding widely available for youth suicide prevention.”

Since GLSMA was signed into law on Oct. 21, 2004, the bill named after the son of Sen. Gordon Smith and his wife Sharon–who died by suicide one day shy of his 22nd birthday in 2003–has been responsible for projects administered by 42 states, 19 tribes or tribal organizations, and 70 colleges or universities. Through those projects, more than 150,000 people have been trained in youth suicide prevention activities.

In a video message on Wednesday morning, Sharon Smith told the conference attendees that “Garrett suffered from what was likely bipolar disorder” and “could not comprehend an end to his darkness.”

“Garrett’s story, unfortunately, is not unique,” she said.

After his son died, Gordon Smith related, “I almost threw in the towel and gave up on everything, even the U.S. Senate,” adding that he is now grateful that he “soldiered on … with a heavy heart.”

“As a result of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, families across America are finding help,” he said, praising the grantees “for helping young people who, like Garrett, have a mental illness.”

“You are doing the work of angels, and I thank you.”

SPNAC readers can access a copy of Sen. Smith’s remarks about GLSMA that were delivered to the U.S. Senate last September 10, on World Suicide Prevention Day.

The conference on Wednesday was also addressed by Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, who lost a son to suicide in 2003 and, seven months later, lost his other son in combat in Iraq.

“Both my sons died fighting different battles,” Graham says in a television news interview he shared with conference attendees.

To the grantees, he said, speaking of himself and his wife Carol, “We really wish we weren’t qualified to be here,” adding that the loss of their sons “has left us feeling empty and truly hopeless at times.”

“Even after five years,” he said, “I still wake up thinking maybe this was a bad dream or some other family’s story, not ours.”

General Graham recounted how he had reached the end of his will to go on as an Army officer, but then he and his wife–even in the midst of a moment of despair–saw how they might be of service to others. Like the Smiths, the Grahams have “soldiered on” and are now advocates for the cause of suicide prevention, and they dedicate their lives to supporting others who are grieving from losses both to suicide and to combat.

“An amazing phenomenon has occurred,” he said. “Little by little, we could feel ourselves growing stronger … the more we realized that they really weren’t gone at all … [that] they were in our hearts, and we carried them with us everywhere we would go.”

SPNAC readers can access a Denver Post report that includes interviews with Gen. Graham and his wife.

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