Preventing suicide is a cause that has special meaning to me. In 1972, I lost my father to suicide, and I didn't talk about it for many years. It wasn't until 25 years later in a Senate Aging Committee hearing that I discussed it publicly. Since that day, I have openly spoken of my father's death to draw attention to the need for larger suicide prevention efforts. We've had some success in our work, but clearly not enough.
The suicide rate here in Nevada has reached crisis level. The suicide rate in Nevada's 15 rural counties is more than double the national rate and recent reports show the Douglas County Sheriff's Office has already received calls on 13 suicides - more than the total for last year and twice the number for 2005.
We need to bring additional resources to Nevada's rural communities, and one way we can do so is telemedicine. An example of this can be seen in the new remote benefits delivery program in Elko implemented by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Through video conferencing technology, veterans in Elko can talk face-to-face with a benefits specialist in Reno without having to make the long trip. Making this human connection between people certainly increases efficiency, but more importantly, it can be used to provide frontline help to those who may not have anywhere else to find it. We can use similar technology with health professionals to help with suicide prevention.
The suicide prevention effort has gained much ground through legislation in the past 10 years, much of which I am proud to have helped initiate. In 1997, I led the Senate in passing a resolution calling for national action on suicide. I continued this work the following year by playing a key role in organizing a National Suicide Prevention Conference in Reno, which led to a list of recommendations that was later presented to the U.S. Surgeon General and is still being used to guide many of today's suicide prevention efforts. Since then, I have continually worked to direct federal funding to the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as well as support legislation designed to improve access to mental health care in general. A good example is the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act of 2003 I worked to enact, which created a federal grants program to enhance youth suicide prevention efforts.
Most recently, I introduced the Stop Senior Suicide Act. For more than 20 years, Nevada's rate of suicide in those 65 and over has been the nation's worst. My bill is a comprehensive response that would do the following:
• Improve the geriatric and mental health delivery system by forming an Interagency Geriatric Health Planning Council
• Create a grants program focused specifically on senior suicide prevention and early intervention programs
• Ensure the Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides guidance, training, and technical assistance to those working on elderly suicide prevention
• Improve Medicare coverage of mental health by cutting from 50 to 20 percent the co-insurance for outpatient mental health services, removing a key barrier for seniors in need of mental health care.
I'm hopeful that the goal of the Medicare mental health provision will be achieved by a broader Medicare measure put into law by Congress this summer. We are also close to passing further legislation to strengthen coverage of mental health for everyone, not just Medicare beneficiaries. It's my goal that Congress will be able to get this mental health parity legislation enacted without further delay.
I share the view of the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention that everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention. For more information about how to get involved, this office can be reached by calling (775) 684-4000 in the north and (702) 486-8225 in the south. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the Nevada Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-877-885-HOPE (4673) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
• Harry Reid, who lives inSearchlight, is the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate; He can be reached through his Web site, http://reid.senate.gov/