September 16, 2004 | WebMemo on Federal Budget
Confronted with yet another "crisis," Congress is working feverishly to combat youth suicide. By authorizing $82 million in federal spending for a national clearing house and two federal grant programs, legislators in Washington hope to reduce the number teenage and college-age students who take their own lives. The problem is real, but government action is not the solution. The President should demonstrate his commitment to control spending and veto this bill.
The bill (S. 2634, H.R. 4799) is titled "The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act," after sponsor Sen. Gordon Smith's (R-Ore.) son, who took his own life last fall. This tragic experience shook Sen. Smith. He appealed from the floor of the Senate, "No family should experience the pain we have suffered." But no matter how heartbreaking the loss of a loved one is, establishing solutions for problems like suicide simply is not in the purview of the federal government.
Many senators responded emotionally to Smith's testimony. The bill passed by unanimous consent and, with slight amendment, won approval in the House of Representatives, where several members have also lost loved ones to suicide in recent years. But in the House, 64 representatives courageously opposed this emotion-laden and personally relevant piece of legislation.
Despite this opposition, the bill is now on its way to the White House. It is unlikely that this popular legislation will draw President Bush's first veto.
The emotional tug of this legislation notwithstanding, the benefit of suicide prevention programs remains unclear. Suicide awareness programs may actually be harmful in certain circumstances, as in the 1990 case of second-grader Stephen Nalepa. Nalepa's class viewed a suicide prevention video called "Nobody's Useless" and the next day mimicked the video's main character and hung himself. Despite that cases like this have led the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry to conclude, "Curriculum-based suicide awareness programs disturb some high-risk students," this method could soon be funded with federal tax dollars.
The federal government has long held the delusion that it can solve long-standing social problems. But just like President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, these efforts tend to fail spectacularly and cost taxpayers billions. In this case, Congress will spend $82 million to wage the first three years of a "War on Youth Suicide." The funding figure is actually worse than it looks. The bill calls for $15 million in 2005, $27 million in 2006, and $40 million in 2007. Surely, it will only go up from there.
Creating new programs may be a way for Congress to feel like it is doing something, but the government simply cannot solve every problem in society, nor should it seek to. In an era of runaway federal spending, this is yet another example of the difficulty Congress has in restraining itself with scarce taxpayer dollars.
The problem of youth suicide is not best and most effectively fought by expanding the federal government, but by the private sector. Charitable organizations rightfully administer many programs to meet this need already.
One provision of the bill would establish a Suicide Prevention Resource Center, intended to be a national clearinghouse for statistical and methodological data exchange between the various organizations combating youth suicide. However, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (http://www.sprc.org/) already exists to fulfill this role. In other words, the one legitimate provision in the bill would re-establish a clearinghouse that is already in place.
The tragedy of youth suicide strikes an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 American families a year, but establishing a new federal program through taxpayer dollars is not an appropriate solution. Families, communities, churches, and non-profits must and will continue to combat teenage suicide. Federal involvement would only create unnecessary headaches. Congress needs to rediscover the sensible adage, "Don't just do something, stand there."
Congress tried to demonstrate that it cares about this issue, but it has only succeeded in creating another government program. Sixty-four representatives made the difficult decision to stand on principle despite the popularity of new government spending. It was the hard choice, but the right one. Because even the best intentions can result in lousy legislation, President Bush should follow their example and veto this bill.
Keith Miller is a Research Assistant in, and Alison Acosta Fraser is Director of, the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
 David Shaffer, M.D., et. al., "Practice Parameter for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents with Suicidal Behavior," Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol. 40, July2001 Sup. at http://www.aacap.org/clinical/suicide.htm.