Trahan urges renewal of suicide prevention programs | News

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BOSTON — A tidal wave of youth behavioral health issues during the pandemic has Congress looking to reinvigorate suicide prevention programs targeting teens.

A bipartisan proposal co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Westford, would reauthorize programs established under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which support community-based youth and young adult suicide prevention efforts. The programs are set to expire at the end of September.

“The youth mental health crisis has only been made worse by the challenges of the pandemic,” Trahan said. “We have an obligation to meet this moment of urgency with the comprehensive solutions and resources our children need.”

The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, approved by Congress in 2004, is named after the son of former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, who died by suicide in 2004. The law was last authorized by Congress in 2015.

While children were spared the worst health effects of the COVID-19 outbreak over the past two years, their mental health was a much different story.

Lockdowns, school closings and restrictions on social gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus, coupled with a lack of access to in-person services, exacerbated a mental health treatment gap for children, medical experts say. Low-income and minority children were disproportionately affected.

Last year, a coalition of health groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a dire warning that the youth mental health crisis has become a “national emergency.”

In Massachusetts, a shortage of staffing and beds in mental health units means young people often end up “boarding” in emergency rooms waiting for services.

As of last Friday, there were at least 224 pediatric patients awaiting beds in psychiatric facilities across Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association’s weekly report. That’s the largest number of pediatric patients since the association began reporting boarding numbers in October.

While state health officials have reported an increase in suicidal ideation and attempts, the number of suicides among youth that result in death decreased between 2019 and 2020, according to the latest data from the state Department of Public Health.

In 2020, there were 615 reported suicides in Massachusetts, a 4% decline from 2019, according to the agency. Suicide among young people ages 15 to 24 decreased by about 3%, the agency said. But suicides among Asian and Latino youth increased between 2019 and 2020, the agency reported.

The Biden administration is preparing to roll out the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s new three-digit number, 988, by mid-July. The new system will operate 24 hours a day and be the dedicated call-in line for dispatching trained staff to respond to mental health and substance use emergencies.

U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, who introduced the bill to designate 988 as the Lifeline number in 2020, says it will help remove stigma, improve mental health care and save lives by connecting people in crisis to services.

Moulton has teamed up with other House lawmakers on a bill to provide funding for the new suicide prevention hotline, which is pending before Congress.

“We’re long overdue to provide this service to Americans looking for a reliable, free place to turn during mental health emergencies,” Moulton said in a statement.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at

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