When we think of our community, we visualize a pristine lifestyle outlined by miles and miles of gorgeous coastline, picturesque scenery and a degree of quirkiness not found in other parts of the state, much less the country.
But the Florida Keys also have the highest suicide rate among Florida’s 67 counties.
For the rolling three-year interval from 2013 to 2015, the Florida Department of Health shows Monroe County with a count of 66 suicides, which is a rate 27.7 per 100,000 people (the Census Bureau says Monroe’s population is 77,482). By comparison, Miami-Dade County had 711 suicides but at a rate of only 8.4 per 100,000. In addition, suicides among people 21 and younger in Monroe County are higher than Florida's average.
Many of us were devastated by the Nov. 17 suicide of longtime Assistant State Attorney Manny Madruga, remembered as a determined, respected and compassionate member of our community. Most people were shocked considering Madruga had such a successful career. Much of the shock was rooted in trying to make sense of such a desperate act.
There are numerous triggers that can lead to suicide. The Keys are essentially an incubator for the ingredients that can contribute to suicide attempts: Financial difficulties for those struggling to make ends meet in our high-cost-of-living community. Loneliness and detachment from family among those who ventured here looking for a new start. And certainly, alcohol- and drug-addiction issues.
Mental-health issues is also a strong contributor and the proper professional assistance to combat mental illness is not broadly available enough in our community. People who are at risk require not only medical support, they need it quickly, as time is critical to avert an unfortunate outcome.
Homelessness feeds this pipeline, too, and while the raw numbers of the homeless population in our community remains relatively low, the offshoots of homelessness — desperation, anger, substance abuse — all contribute to a need for better mental-health support.
Our geographic challenges magnify the situation. We not only lack the necessary support and outlets but services more available on the mainland. This inherent isolation can end up being both the cause and effect.
A conversation about suicide is difficult and one most of us are not qualified to conduct. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want answers. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t want to provide those most vulnerable with every resource possible.
What ultimately triggers suicide differs from case to case. We knew that Manny Madruga’s position in the State Attorney’s Office had been identified for transition, but how many of us truly believe that single ingredient set everything in motion? Many of us love our jobs but would never consider suicide if we lost them.
We cannot alter our landscape to position ourselves closer to the services, so the services need to come to us. One service the county has at its disposal but has proven to be largely ineffective is Florida 2-1-1. Florida 2-1-1 touts itself as a free, confidential service that connects residents with local community-based organizations across the state offering thousands of different programs and services for people seeking answers. The problem with 2-1-1 is the range of services is very broad and the lack of local support so weak, it’s rendered mostly ineffective for Monroe County.
Suicide awareness and understanding should be more top of mind in our community, and not just because of the statistics. As we enter the holiday season, as feelings of despair, isolation and depression can bubble up and become more prevalent for some, this subject should be addressed more transparently.
Warning signs of potential suicide include feeling hopeless or trapped, having nowhere to turn, or being in unbearable pain. Other signs include increased anxiety, agitation or recklessness, and withdrawal or rage.
If you or anyone you know exhibits these signs, don’t ignore them. Make the area safe by removing any firearms, alcohol or sharp objects that could be used to inflict harm and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800)273-8255.