Marco Island suicide, attempts prompt mental health discussion
Marco Island police officers saved a man who they said was trying to jump from the S.S. Jolley Bridge on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017. (Video does not contain sound.) Video courtesy Marco Island Police Department
A Marco Island woman died Dec. 13 after jumping off the S.S. Jolley Bridge in an apparent suicide. Nine days later, Marco Island police officers saved a man who they said was attempting to do the same. On Jan. 4, police officers responded to a report of a gunshot wound they later determined was self-inflicted.
In the sleepy city of Marco Island, a veritable paradise of luxury hotels, white sand beaches and bountiful sunshine, public suicide attempts come as a shock. The recent incidents have spurred a communitywide discussion about mental health and how to combat a steadily growing statewide problem.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 3,205 people in Florida killed themselves in 2015, the most recent full-year record available. That's approximately 14 people per 100,000, which is higher than the national average and is the state's highest rate since 2009.
Collier County, which has among Florida’s lowest suicide rates, recorded 44 suicides in 2015, according to the Florida Department of Health, which is an increase from the previous two years.
Tracy Perkins, program director of Community Awareness in Recognizing and Educating on Suicide Prevention, said the increase in the number of suicides could be due to lack of resources, or more specifically, a lack of the right types of resources.
“Right now a lot of resources are reactionary," she said. "There needs be a push for more preventative resources."
Compounding the problem is disproportionately low state funding for mental health care; in 2012, the most recent full-year record available, Florida ranked 50th in the nation for per capita spending on mental health care at $37.28 per person annually.
“It’s sad, especially in our field, to know that Florida ranks so low and that (suicide) isn’t seen as a dire concern when it absolutely is; twice as many people die by suicide than by homicide in Florida,” Perkins said. “If we could put more money toward prevention, then maybe we’d start to see those numbers decreasing.”
Although the state’s overall funding for mental health and substance abuse went up by $16.9 million for the budget year that began July 1, the Legislature also quietly allowed $20.4 million in federal aid for substance abuse and mental health care to expire. The move surprised many in the mental health care industry.
“It wasn’t clear to us that this money was going away," Linda McKinnon, CEO at Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, said in a previous interview. "I don’t know why no one brought it to our attention."
Insufficient funding for mental health care is present on the national stage, as well; according to previous reporting, government and private funding of suicide-related research averaged about $71.6 million a year between 2008 and 2013, a “meager” amount given the death toll and funding for public health issues resulting in fewer deaths, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention concluded in a 2015 report.
“Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.,” Perkins said. “We lose about 45,000 people annually, and that number increased by 1.8 percent in 2016. It’s staggering, and very disheartening because every suicide is a tragedy.”
Not all suicide prevention efforts require a vast investment of money; a recent campaign in New Hampshire resulted in 48 percent of gun shop owners posting suicide prevention materials in their stores, according to previous reporting. Since most people try to kill themselves within 24 hours of a given crisis, reducing access to such lethal means may reduce the chances of death, experts say.
Former Marco Island resident Laura Pacter said the city should employ a similar strategy with regard to the S.S. Jolley Bridge.
"As the city manager, you need to look into a budget for signage to make people aware of mental health issues ... and also have video cams available at this bridge, and possibly an emergency phone that is solar powered," she wrote in a Dec. 22 email to City Manager Lee Niblock. "If (nothing else), create a sign that has a phone number for people to call so they do not feel they are alone."
However, it's not that simple. The S.S. Jolley Bridge is a state bridge, Marco Island Public Works Director Tim Pinter said, so any additions or modifications to it would require "considerable coordination" with the Florida Department of Transportation.
"Any signage, lights or other accessory features must be approved by the FDOT office," he said. "We actually needed permission to add our city limit sign to the bridge after the construction was finished."
Pacter's suggestions, however, are the type of preventive measures that should be more commonplace, Perkins said.
“There’s not any one reason why suicides occur, but isolation is a big factor, which is why we as a community need to make an effort to start understanding and talking about these issues, as difficult as that may be," she said. “We need to create a culture in which people aren't ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help."
Fort Myers New-Press reporter Frank Gluck contributed to this article.
Millions of adults in the U.S. suffer from mental health conditions. Many of those conditions start during teenage years. Treatment is attainable and vital. Wochit
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Crisis Text Line
Text 'HOME' to 741741
David Lawrence Center
Surviving After A Suicide Loss
Mental Health Association of Southwest Florida
National Alliance on Mental Illness