Oregon’s Gordon Smith and his wife, Sharon, hope reaching out helps keep other families from meeting the same fate. Their 22-year-old son, Garrett, took his life in 2003, after a long struggle against depression. Tracy Smith has their story.
Politicians usually don’t like to put their personal lives in the spotlight.
But Sen. Gordon Smith and his wife, Sharon, are doing just that, in the hope other families can learn from the very private and tragic story of their son’s suicide.
The Early Show national correspondent Tracy Smith says the Smiths were a picture-perfect family, devoted to public service, their religion, and each other, until one terrible day when their son’s darkest problem came crashing down on them.
“He played football,” Sharon told Tracy. … “He was an Eagle scout. … He just was an all-American boy … and had tons of friends.”
He seemed to be the perfect son, of a perfect father, a United States senator.
“I just felt,” says Gordon, a Republican from Oregon, “like I had failed as a dad. I’d been out trying to and, in some way, to save the world (through) public service. But, I failed to save my own son.”
“Had we known earlier,” says Sharon, “I think we would have had a different result at the end. I do.”
Garrett Smith was the second of three children Gordon and Sharon adopted. Although diagnosed at a young age with severe dyslexia, he seemed happy growing up, Tracy reports.
Then, when he was 17, Garrett “dropped a bombshell on us, that he was an alcoholic,” Gordon says.
Gordon and Sharon discovered that their son was drinking right in their own home.
“Garrett had said, ” ‘It makes me feel like I can speak up far in class better,’ ” Sharon recalls, “that, ‘I’m just more relaxed around the girls.’ “Garrett got help, and the drinking stopped.”At the time,” Smith asked, “did you think, ‘It’s just a phase. This is typical’?”
“(We thought it was) typical teenage behavior,” Sharon responded, “and I think a lot of parents would think the same thing.”
But then, Tracy says, came another warning sign: A year later, on his application to be a Mormon missionary, Garrett admitted that he suffered from depression.
“(I asked him) ‘Why would you check that?’ ” Sharon told Tracy, “and he said, ‘Well, because I’m depressed. And I am more and more all the time.’ ”
The Smiths were shocked. But Garrett insisted he’d be fine if he went away for two years. In fact, he was. But, Tracy says, when he returned home for college, he started drinking again, and seemed to fall into a dark hole.
“He just started screaming out that he felt hopeless,” Gordon remembered. “(He felt) his life was pointless, vain, meaningless. …He wished that his birth mother had prevented his birth. He wished that, that he could just go to sleep without waking up.”
The Smiths sent their son to a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants.
But he was spiraling down, faster than they knew.
The message on his answering machine could have been the final alarm.
“It just said,” Gordon told Tracy, ” ‘This is Smith. I don’t feel well. Do not call me anymore.’ ”
Then, Gordon described the moment when their doorbell rang: “The police are at the door. … They just said, ‘We don’t know how to make this easy. But your son was found — dead in his apartment. And — it appears to be a suicide.’ ”
The day before his 22nd birthday, Garrett Lee Smith swallowed a fistful of sleeping pills and hanged himself in the closet of his college apartment.
Wracked by guilt, the senator worried that he’d put his political career ahead of his son.
“Was I complicit in killing my son?” Gordon says he wondered, “because … I think I was a good daddy.”
“You were a great daddy,” Sharon reminds him. “He loved you. And he was really proud of you. I’m sure of that.”
“You still have to tell him that?” Tracy asked.
“Yep,” Sharon confirmed. “I still have to remind him of that.”
Part of Garrett’s note to his parents read, “Put me in the ground, and forget about me.”
“Well,” Gordon remarked, “We haven’t listened to him.”
The senator decided to ignore his son’s dying wish, and his own instinct to withdraw from the spotlight.
In an emotional speech on the Senate floor, Gordon said, “I didn’t volunteer to be a champion of this issue, but it arose out of the personal experience of being a parent who lost a child to mental illness and suicide.”
A year after Garrett’s death, President Bush signed the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, authorizing $82 million in grants to help prevent suicide by young people. Among the things the funds were earmarked for: mental health screenings in schools.
“We take our kids for physical vaccinations, dental exams, eye checkups,” Gordon says. “When do we think to take our — our son or daughter for a mental health checkup?”
Sen. Smith has spent most of his career as a public servant, but it’s his private pain that could be his most enduring legacy, Tracy Smith observes.
“So,” she asked Gordon, “to parents out there who watch this story and say, ‘Well, that might be my kid, but probably not,’ what would you say?”
“If this can happen in our house, it can happen in your house,” Gordon replied.
Suicide takes the lives of more than 30,000 Americans every year, and is the second leading cause of death among college students.
Sen. Smith calls it an epidemic. That’s why he wrote a book about his son’s life, “Remembering Garrett: One Family’s Battle with a Child’s Depression.”
Gordon and Sharon hope that, by sharing Garrett’s story, other parents will catch the signs of teen depression much sooner.
The first unmistakable hint came four years ago, the summer after Garrett Smith graduated from Pendleton High School. He chose to serve a two-year Mormon mission abroad and filled out the health questionnaire.
One answer jumped off the page when his parents read the completed form. On the question about whether he suffered depression, Garrett had checked yes.
“That was the first time we ever knew,” says Garrett’s mother, Sharon Smith. “It was shocking to us.”
They asked Garrett about it, broaching the idea of a counselor and wondering whether the mission might be too stressful.
“No, I think I can keep it in check,” Garrett’s mother recalls him saying, “but I didn’t want to lie about it.”
In hindsight, she says, “I believe Garrett felt that if he went to a doctor, he would have to acknowledge he had a problem.”
One year ago today, Garrett Lee Smith, son of Sen. Gordon and Sharon Smith, killed himself in his apartment in Utah, where he attended college. He was one day shy of 22 years old. Like most suicides, Garrett’s came out of the blue — and didn’t. As shocking as it was to family and friends, Garrett’s death fit a classic pattern of youth suicide. The danger signals were there to be seen, or not seen, or seen and somehow explained away.
These days, Sharon Smith carries a business card from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It posts eight warning signs of suicide.
“Look at this,” she says, ticking them off one by one. During the last year of his life, Garrett exhibited all eight.
“A lot of times,” she says, “you don’t see it until later.”
During the past year, Gordon and Sharon Smith have tried to turn their private grief to public good by campaigning for de-stigmatized attention to mental illness and prevention of youth suicide. They have joined what Gordon Smith calls an involuntary “fraternity of sorrow.” Three large packing boxes in the basement of their home are filled with letters and messages — upward of 10,000 — the Smiths received after Garrett’s death. Many came from strangers.
“I never expected to be in league with them,” Gordon Smith says. “I think I can count on one hand the number of days in my life when I have felt depressed. For me to relate to it was late — and, I fear, too late to be of help to our son.”
What the Smiths now know is that depression is not rare or peculiar — but can be deadly. It affects one in six Americans at some point. Hardly a family goes untouched.
Outwardly, he seemed a model child. Eagle Scout. Devout Mormon. Plenty of friends. A job pumping gas at the local Chevron station.
The Smiths adopted Garrett when he was a few days old. They have a 24-year-old daughter, Brittany, and a 15-year-old son, Morgan, who were also adopted.
“Just a little bear cub of a boy,” Gordon Smith says of Garrett. “His friendship was easy, but his needs were greater than you realized because he did not value himself.”
He liked to hunt and fish and tinker with cars. He was a good sport about showing up at campaign rallies for his dad.
“Garrett was a regular, normal boy,” his mother says. “He was one of those kids everyone loved. There was nothing peculiar about him.
“I’ve got three great kids, but he was my easiest child.”
Yet Garrett struggled in school. He was dyslexic. Reading and writing came hard, and he had trouble spelling ordinary words. Sometimes he would withdraw to his room for an entire day. His parents chalked that up to a lack of confidence and his troubles with schoolwork. One day when Garrett was 13, his mother found him in his room, crying. She asked what was wrong and remembers him saying he could never marry because he would not be able to take care of a wife and children. She thought he was overly worried about his learning disability.
It’s one of those incidents, she says, “that at the time meant one thing and now means another.”
After Gordon Smith won a U.S. Senate seat and bought a home outside Washington, D.C., Garrett attended a private school in Maryland for two years. But he moved back to Pendleton High School for his senior year to graduate with his hometown friends. Another reason: He had briefly gotten into trouble with alcohol.
During his two-year mission in England, Garrett and his family sent audiotapes back and forth. He seemed content, though occasionally he mentioned he was “kind of down” or seemed unduly quiet. Garrett came home from his mission in October 2002. He and his best friend, Ethan Brown, planned to live together and go to Utah Valley State College.
They had been friends for as long as either could remember. They became Eagle Scouts the same day, and both served church missions. Their families sometimes vacationed together. At first, Garrett was excited to be home and see his friends. But then his mood darkened. Both parents sensed that he seemed lost without the regimen and clear goals of the church mission.
“He was really down,” Ethan says. “He just wanted to sleep all the time.”
Since high school, Garrett and his friends had liked daring sports: cliff jumping into the Columbia, mountain biking, snowboarding. But increasingly, Ethan noticed, Garrett held back and withdrew. When Garrett moved to Provo, Utah, before starting classes in January of last year, the Smiths asked whether he needed to see a doctor. Again he said no. Again they took him at his word. In February, Ethan called the Smiths to say he was worried about Garrett. What he did not say until later was what prompted his call.
Garrett and Ethan had decided to go to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, with friends. On their way out of town, they stopped to get cash. Garrett said he didn’t want to go after all and walked home. Late that night, when Ethan got home, he found Garrett in the apartment, drunk and morose. It was the first time Ethan had seen Garrett drinking since before his church mission. Worse, Garrett confided he had swallowed one-third of a bottle of pain pills along with the beer. Ethan stayed with him to make sure he didn’t pass out.
“In retrospect, it was a cry for help,” Ethan says. “I was kind of in denial. I thought it was just the pressure of school or girls and everything that happens when you move out on your own.”
Garrett’s drinking bouts grew more frequent. He was drinking hard liquor now.
“He would tell me: ‘It helps me forget my problems. It numbs me, so I don’t have to feel anything,’ ” Ethan says.
Ethan urged Garrett to tell his parents about the drinking, which is forbidden in the Mormon faith. “I thought part of his depression was from not telling his parents.”
After finishing the term with B’s and C’s, Garrett took a summer job conducting telephone surveys and moved into an apartment by himself in Orem, Utah. Again, he declined to see a doctor, but he had started taking medication. After Ethan’s February call, Sharon Smith asked a doctor in Pendleton to prescribe antidepressants and had them sent by overnight mail. How faithfully he took them is not clear.
Ethan sensed Sharon Smith’s bewilderment as well as his own. “She had never encountered anything like this,” he says.
But his message got through. “It was loud and clear Ethan was worried about Garrett taking his life, even though he didn’t say that in so many words,” she says.
In May, Garrett agreed to see a psychologist in Utah twice a week.
Meanwhile, Garrett’s friends learned of a second suicide attempt — this time by cutting his upper arm. Garrett’s parents did not find out specifically about the two attempts until after his death.
Ethan felt caught. “I was very worried about Garrett, but I didn’t want to parent him. And it never really hit me that he could actually take his life.”
But Garrett’s condition clearly was deteriorating. He had put on weight and often slept into the afternoon.
“That wasn’t just Garrett being quiet and keeping to himself,” Ethan says. “That wasn’t just being under pressure. It wasn’t normal.”
It’s easy — and painfully hard — to see that now. Ethan says the lesson is: “Don’t let those things go ignored. It’s a red flag.”
One midsummer night, Ethan decided to confront Garrett.
“I said, ‘Garrett, can I take your guns away?’ ” To his relief, Garrett did not protest. “He said, ‘Yeah, that might be a good idea.’ ”
Ethan carried the guns — a shotgun and a small-caliber rifle — to the trunk of his car.
Increasingly worried, Sharon and Gordon Smith visited Garrett in July. His weight had ballooned to more than 200 pounds. He wasn’t shaving. He seemed disconnected from friends and often didn’t answer his phone. When his mother asked about the scar on his arm, he said it was from mountain biking.
“We were at a loss what to do,” she says. In desperation, they asked Garrett what could lift his mood. When he let on he’d like to go back to England, they dropped other plans and arranged a two-week British vacation.
“We saw it as a chance to reconnect him with a period that had been fulfilling to him,” Gordon Smith says. “But in retrospect, we realize he was simply saying goodbye.”
Before they left, Garrett’s psychologist suggested he see a psychiatrist — who could alter his medication. The first available appointment was the day after he was to return from vacation. The trip went fairly well, with fond reminders of Garrett’s mission days. But there were three days, the Smiths recall, when he curled up almost in a fetal position in the back seat of the car and kept to himself.
On the last evening, at a hotel near Loch Lomond in Scotland, they had a heart-to-heart talk. More urgently than ever, they voiced concern for his health.
“All of a sudden, there was this steely look out of his eyes, the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen,” Sharon Smith recalls. Garrett began to weep. “And he told us he was struggling so much with depression that ‘I think I may take my life.’ ”
The Smiths stayed up much of the night talking to their son, trying to convince him, as Gordon Smith puts it, that “there was a good and happy place for him in this world.” Garrett’s family and his church, they said, would always be there for him.
The scariest thing, Gordon Smith recalls, “was that he was beyond my reach. I was powerless to make it better for him.”
Still, by morning, Garrett’s spirit seemed to have lifted — as if, his father says, a switch had turned off. The family flew from Glasgow to Atlanta. From there, Garrett flew on to Utah. The airport departure was his parents’ last glimpse of Garrett.
“It was a very happy parting,” Gordon Smith says.
“Garrett kissed me on the lips,” Sharon Smith recalls. “He had never done that.” He also promised to come home for the Pendleton Round-Up in September.
“I still believe,” Sharon Smith says, “that while a side of him was desperate, another side of him still had all those wonderful plans.”
The psychiatrist Garrett saw once — two weeks before he died — later told the Smiths he showed signs of bipolar disorder, a condition of alternating manic highs and depressed lows. Trying to convince Garrett there was reason to be happy, he said, was like telling a diabetic he didn’t need insulin.
But at the time, Garrett’s parents thought he had turned a corner. They sent him the family dog, a bulldog named Ollie. Garrett seemed delighted to have Ollie with him and even joked about Ollie being “a babe magnet.”
Garrett, who loved to cook, also seemed excited about majoring in culinary arts.
During the first week of school, a series of events befell him that might have been mere annoyances for a less troubled person. The landlord left a note saying dogs over 25 pounds — Ollie wasn’t — violated the rental contract. Someone hit Garrett’s BMW in a parking lot. A date with an old girlfriend bombed.
At some point during that week, Garrett gave away his TV and a collection of videos. He stopped answering the phone and changed the message to: “This is Smith. Please don’t call again.”
Sunday morning, Garrett was seen playing with Ollie in his yard for hours. Later he set up a makeshift kennel in the apartment with extra dog food. He typed a letter “to family and friends” and left it on the screen of his laptop. He left the door unlocked. Sometime that night, Garrett swallowed a bunch of pills, chased them with Jack Daniel’s whiskey and passed out in his closet with a noose around his neck.
A friend found him the next afternoon, after he didn’t show up for class.
A year ago tonight, two officers went to the Smiths’ home in suburban Washington, D.C. Gordon Smith was upstairs in his pajamas when he heard the doorbell and then Sharon calling urgently. Even before one of the officers spoke the word “tragic,” Gordon Smith knew instinctively it was awful news about Garrett.
“At that moment, my life seemed pretty vain,” he recalls, “and I felt the ultimate failure.”
At first, Sharon Smith was the stronger of the parents in dealing with their loss. She was better able to see depression as disease, like cancer. Gordon Smith told friends: “I spent the last 10 years trying to save the world, and I should have been trying to save my son.”
It was cathartic, he says, to join the public struggle against suicide.
“If Garrett’s tragedy has any meaning, it will be because we prevent other kids from a similar fate,” Gordon Smith told a Senate subcommittee in March. In December, Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed Sharon Smith to the Oregon Task Force on Mental Health.
The note Garrett left offered bittersweet balm to his parents. “If it is any consolation, your love is the only thing in my life that I knew would not change,” it said.
“I just wish I could feel the same about myself. I love you so much.”
Web sites [ostensibly* – SSRI Ed] offering resources for suicide prevention and depression awareness include:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Columbia University TeenScreen Program
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
The Jason Foundation
The Jed Foundation
National Alliance of Mental Illness
National Council for Suicide Prevention
HHS Mental Health Services Administration Substance Abuse
*Editor’s Note: NONE of these “resources” discuss the role of psychiatric drugs in exacerbating the problems young people cafe with uncertainty, sexual identity, feelings of inability to cope, anxiety etc. If antidepressants are mentioned, even though most of the time completed suicide follows prescription of these “Don’t care anymore” drugs, they are assumed to be beneficial. This is most alarming because it belies the clear evidence that they are making matters worse.