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Grim Flagler Milestone in 2017: Most Suicides In County’s History, Highest Rate in Florida

| August 6, 2018

tyrone hartley suicide note

Tyrone Hartley’s suicide note. (© FlaglerLive via FCSO)

Tyrone Hartley’s letter was undated, handwritten in capital letters on standard-ruled paper and addressed to a friend in Michigan with the opening line, “What’s up bro.” Hartley, a resident of Bunker Knolls in Palm Coast, was a veteran and a few weeks from his 59th birthday. He was writing his friend a suicide note explaining “5 reasons why I’m done.”

He listed them: Bad sleep. Depression. Pain. Something cryptic about false courage and being “scared it might get me first.” The Veterans Administration denying his claim.

Hartley was found dead of a gunshot wound at his home on June 11, after his friend contacted local law enforcement to report receiving the letter. Hartley is one of 16 Flagler  residents so far this year whose death was ruled a suicide

There were 31 suicides in Flagler County in 2017. It is the highest rate recorded in the county since the Department of Health has been keeping records, going back to 1970.

At 28.8 per 100,000 population, Flagler’s is also the highest rate recorded in the state. Suwanee is second at 28.7, Taylor third at 25.4. The rate is accentuated in counties with smaller populations. One-year spikes are not  usually indicative of a trend. But averaging rates over the past decade, Flagler ranks 14th out of 67 counties, with a rate of 18.1 (Flagler is tied with Dixie and Highlands counties). Monroe has the highest suicide rate during that span, at 24.1.

Florida’s rate is 14.1 per 100,000 population, placing it above the national average of 13.5. Fourteen states have a suicide rate higher than Flagler’s, with Montana, Alaska and Wyoming topping the list with rates exceeding 25 per 100,000.

The numbers can be dramatic, but the smaller a county’s population, the more prone its rate to fluctuations and outlying spikes. A difference of two fewer suicides would not change the rate in, say, Duval, Broward or Miami Dade. But it would lower Flagler’s below that of Suwanee. Still, Flagler’s numbers are coinciding with an effort in the past two years by the School Board and social service agencies to bring more awareness to the trend and change the conversation about suicide–starting with having one: suicide, often the culmination of a mental health crisis,  has been in the shadows, a subject more prone to taboos than discussions as with, say, diabetes or heart failure: few media outlets even report on suicides, though that’s changing.

“We’re really working to try to change the community’s perspective about mental health,” says Colleen Conklin, the school board member who’s taken a lead role for several years in suicide awareness issues and through Flagler Cares, the coalition of social, health and financial services that seeks to knot together a stronger safety net for those who need it. Conklin and  Carrie Baird, Flagler Cares’ director, appeared before every local government board earlier this year to seek the governments’ cooperation and launch Flagler Lifeline, an initiative and website designed specifically to address suicide and help those thinking about it.

In light of the new suicide numbers, Conklin this week said she wants people to “think of the brain for what it is, as an organ just like a kidney, like a heart,” she said in an interview. “If you had a kidney stone, heart failure, you’d seek out a doctor to address the issue and get well, so the hope is that the message can become very clear that people who are depressed or anxious, that they feel comfortable seeking care. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s not different than if you had a health issue that was impacting your kidney or heart.”

The groups, Conklin said, are drafting mental health professionals and clinicians to conduct depression screenings at various events like First Friday in Flagler Beach and other special events “similar to the way you see hospitals go out to provide blood pressure screenings.”

There is no official analysis of the stated reasons behind each suicide. The information is largely anecdotal, the result of law enforcement reports that seek to gather as much readily available information as possible. Depression and illness are among the frequently reported issues.

“Individuals who are lonely, who are detached from their community, family, friends, isolation, I would suspect is a root cause,” Conklin said. “I would also suspect the possibility of substance abuse of some sort and the lack of resources available. The bottom line is we need more local resources. When people do seek care it needs to be accessible and it needs to be effective. We don’t have the local resources we need. Flagler County is still being treated as though it had a population of 60,000 which simply is not the fact.” (The estimated population at the end of 2017 varies depending on the source: the Health Department’s estimate is 106,000, the Census Bureau’s is 110,500.)

People choosing to end their life in Flagler are older rather than younger, in part a reflection of the county’s older demographics: the median age is 50 in a state where the median age is 43 (the national median age is 37). One person 19 or younger died by suicide in Flagler last year (a 17-year-old student), nine were 44 or younger. But in the 45 to 54 age bracket alone, 10 people took their own life. Eleven were 55 or older, including two who were older than 74.

Those who die by suicide are overwhelmingly white. In 2017, one person was Latino, two were black. Seven were women. Ten of the 31 suicides were by gunshot (32 percent), a lower proportion than in the state. In Florida as a whole, 54 percent of last year’s 3,187 suicides were by gunshot.

Eight people 19 or younger have taken their own life in the past 10 years in Flagler. In schools, this year will mark the first time that the district will have one psychologist at each of its schools (three such positions are currently posted).

The need for mental health services across the county is not speculative. Baker Acts have been spiking in the county. The Baker Act is invoked when a person is found to be a danger to self or others. Law enforcement then has the authority to take the person against his or her will if necessary to a locked-up mental health facility in Daytona Beach for up to 72 hours of evaluation (few people are held that long). Three years ago the Sheriff’s Office got grant funding to open the Crisis Triage and Treatment Unit at the Vince Carter Sanctuary, the Stewart-Marchman treatment campus, enabling deputies to take Baker Act patients there, in Bunnell, rather than have to drive them to Halifax’s psychiatric unit in Daytona Beach. CTTU personnel then decides whether the patient needs to be transported to Daytona. But Flagler still does not have its own treatment facility, nor is it likely to get one soon.

There were 434 Baker Acts in 2013-14, and 552 in 2015-16, a 27 percent increase at a time when population is increasing 1 to 2 percent a year. The numbers have been increasing further, with some sheriff’s shifts in the last few weeks seeing four, five, six Baker Acts–numbers unheard of even three years ago.

On Wednesday, Stewart Marchman-Act Behavioral Center announced it was awarded a five-year, $2 million federal grant to provide suicide intervention in local jails and through Veterans Administration services in Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia Counties. (Flagler inmates and deputies in February prevented an inmate from hanging himself.) The grant is in direct recognition of the higher suicide rates in the region. (Putnam’s and Volusia’s are also above the state average.)

“Our local jails have increasingly become de facto treatment centers for individuals with substance dependence disorders and severe mental illness,”  Stewart Marchman’s Rhonda Harvey said. “Our goal is to focus new effort toward intervening in that dynamic, as well as targeting those veterans who are not eligible for VA benefits and are treated and released at a VA clinic after experiencing suicidal ideation.”

Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly has been  dealing with the mental health crisis directly.

“I’m not a psychiatrist or an expert in this field although I grew up around it–my mother implemented the Baker Act in Orange County when the law was first passed,” Staly said. “We have an older community than the state average. I have not done an analysis on what the causes are for suicides in Flagler County, but from looking at it without a statistical analysis, as a community gets older, you have health issues that individuals don’t want to deal with or live that way. That certainly is part of it. We have addiction and alcohol issues that can also trigger those kinds of responses. This community has gone through the Great Recession which causes a lot of stress on families and individuals, so I’m sure that’s a piece of it, and just the general social pressures that occur. It certainly indicates we have a long ways to go to provide the appropriate mental health care as a community.”

Staly said the CTTU in Bunnell has also expanded operations thanks to an enhanced grant.

In effect, the responsive infrastructure is in place to deal with a crisis: cops are doing it all the time, the CTTU is in place, Stewart-Marchman’s facilities in Daytona Beach collect those in crisis. Schools aside, what’s not as evident is the preventive infrastructure–the places where individuals can go in Flagler to seek help beyond crisis phone lines (which are available). Absent the permanent infrastructure, efforts are evident to develop it.

The School Board in September is getting a presentation from Sandy Hook Promise, the non-profit crisis-intervention group formed in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre. The group has developed various means to improve the climate around schools for students who may feel alienated or near a crisis point.

The next meeting is Flagler Cares, on Aug. 13, at 3 p.m. at Florida Hospital Flagler’s Classrooms A and B, will be discussing some of the events the group is planning in observance of World Suicide Prevention Day on Sept. 10.

“It’s sad to begin with,” Staly said of suicide, but to those who take their own life “at that moment in their lives believe that’s the only way out of their life situation, and they leave behind many other victims, children, parents, the spouse, brothers and sisters, that then have to cope with having lost a loved one to suicide.” A life is ended, innumerable lives are up-ended, with survivors close to the person who died then at a higher risk of suicide themselves, studies show. They, too, become victims of suicides even as they continue to live. “What ifs and self-blame,” Staly said, “impacts their lives forever.”

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11 Responses for “Grim Flagler Milestone in 2017: Most Suicides In County’s History, Highest Rate in Florida”

  1. Anonymous says:

    These were some sad statistics………..

  2. Richard says:

    The American people should look LONG & HARD at how Thailand along with many other Asian countries treat and care for their aging parents and family members. We might learn how people really should be taken care of physically and mentally. Just say’n.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hopefully they keep this info out of the tourist brochures………….. sad sad sad ……..

  4. Agkistrodon says:

    It is very sad how many people feel the solution is to end it. I find it especially disturbing that so many of my brothers and sisters in arms feel it is warranted, With that said, I can never put myself in someone else’s shoes, I find that entire statement to be foolish, as no one knows what is like to be in another’s shoes. I can only say that as a retired Disabled Veteran, who has personally be through a lot, and managed to come out the other end, You just have to live life one day at a time. And Suicide solves nothing and only causes pain for others.

  5. oldtimer says:

    I personaly know two people who committed suicide, it may have solved their problem but it left a lot for family and friends

  6. Truth says:

    Depression–it’s the one illness that still carries a stigma, no matter who comes forward with their story. Part of it is that people don’t understand what the suffering is like and equate it to just taking it one day at a time when it is so much more than that. Many people say, “cheer up, it’s not that bad,” or “laugh, it’ll make you feel better,” when the reality is, it’s not that simple. Depression isn’t something that one can laugh away or smile and have the dark cloud suddenly dissipate. It grips you, holds on tighter, and tighter, squeezing until you can no longer breathe. Suicide is an attractive option to many suffering from depression because it’s the only way to get away from the breath stealing grip on your soul. Until someone suffers from depression, they will never understand that hold that it has…it’s not just being sad, or down in the dumps, or even ambivalent. The joys life once brought you vanish. It hurts thinking happy thoughts. It pains you when you look around and let your mind drift, pushing negative thought after negative thought. There is nothing that can pull you out of the darkness, not love, not friendship, not your own successes. Depression is evil and once it takes root it digs in fighting you every step of the way refusing to let you go.

    Sadly, depression and mental illness runs in my family. At 51, my mother took her own life. I was still a kid. Not long after, I came home; saw my father in the kitchen with a gun under his throat threatening to end his life. A few days later, he threatened to end mine. He talked for a long while about taking his life, making it look like an accident. He tried a few times but wasn’t successful. Before my mother took her life, I already tried taking mine…I was 14. I had a lot of things going on in my head and in my life. That wasn’t my only attempt. I tried 8 time from 14-20. I guess you could say I always had a guardian angel around that either intervened or got me medical help in time. All of my cousins, on both sides, are either on head meds or drug addicts because they suffer from bi-polar, schizophrenia, depression, etc. If ever someone wanted to study if depression was truly hereditary, my family would be a great case study. Five of my cousins attempted suicide. The only one successful in my family thus far was my mother but she was a nurse for a time in her life so she knew exactly what medications to use and how much.

    I’d like to say I enjoy life…but I don’t. I never have, not like other people I know. I’m successful. I have my Master’s. I have a great job. I own a home. I’ve been married almost 20 years and it’s a great relationship. But…I understand finally why my mother took her life. At first I hated her for it, for leaving me alone with my father because she escaped from him and left me there. Does that mean I will emulate her? No. I no longer have serious thoughts about suicide. What it does mean is, I understand how someone that seemingly has it all can still feel empty inside. I truly understand what it’s like to wear a public face and not let anyone see what’s really going on inside. It’s a struggle. It has been all my life and will continue to be for as long as I live. For everyone out there that thinks no one understands, there is at least one person in this town that does…me.

  7. Born and Raised Here says:

    How can you live here , and not enjoy our Sun, Beach, and our laid back Life Style. Obviously these folks that are mentally disturbed came here, and are not natives.

  8. Glowworm says:

    As a woman nearing 50, recently widowed, who lost health insurance 1 month after my husband died, who paid said insurance for 20 years at close to $20,000 the last 5 years of my husband’s life, was turned down for disability, can’t work, no income and am now reduced to relying on the free clinic and children for things….I can understand why women are the bigger suicides than men. Women, widows, homemakers are over looked in our society as non-essential but we shared a life with a man and his income should be seen as our income as it was all those years filing taxes. But after his death we are seen as nothing. That the life we led was nothing. And that we are entitled to nothing he made as our husband until we are too old or dead to use it.

  9. Anonymous says:

    People are dying to get the hell out of this shit hole. This place is nothing more than a septic tank. The incumbent politicians have ruined this place beyond belief.

  10. Mary Fusco says:

    First of all, 59 is not an “aging” parent. Secondly, maybe these countries have family units where there are 2 parents plus grandparents. How often do you find this in the US? Marriage is basically a thing of the past. A home where there are children who all have the same father can be rare. Sadly, we live in a very dysfunctional society that is accepted as the norm.

  11. Serenityall3 says:

    I feel their sense of hopelessness…we have no medical, no pensions, no job security, used and abused at work, our children are even less prepared for this cruel heartless, lawless, world…I totally understand people ending their suffering and feel a lot more people are going to choose death to living in bondage to their bosses… it doesn’t have to be this hard…disgusting the cost of everything astronomical, stagnant wages, and no hope in sight for an easier morefulfilling life… we need real healthcare, real retirement options at younger ages than 67, real social security to sustain us without burdening our children… never gonna happen those that don’t commit suicide will die of easily cured cancers and diseases if they had just been detected earlier with real health care…not the bullshit we have now

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