Community shaken by untimely deaths of area teens

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In 2015, a total of four teens ages 14 to 19 years old committed suicide in the area, according to the Florida Department of Health. “We are seeing more of it,” said Larry McFarland, clinical officer at Bridgeway Center. “It’s a leading cause of death.”

Jennie McKeon | 315-4434 | @jenniemnwfdn | jmckeon@nwfdailynews.com

It’s a problem no one wants to talk about.

In the Emerald Coast. In Florida. In the United States. Suicide affects every community.

“We are seeing more of it,” said Larry McFarland, clinical officer at Bridgeway Center. “It’s a leading cause of death.”

According to data from the Florida Department of Health, 3,152 Floridians committed suicide in 2015. Of that total, 37 were in Okaloosa County, 29 in Santa Rosa County and 11 in Walton County.

This year, the community has been shaken by the suicides of teens. They’re grappling with the questions, but also looking for ways to help prevent these untimely deaths.

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Getting help

Suicide doesn’t have a stereotype. It affects all ages, all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Around the Emerald Coast, resources to help prevent suicides are lacking, according to McFarland.

“Florida continues to rank 49th in the nation for funding for mental health services,” he said. “Bridgeway used to have a crisis stabilization unit, but did not have the funds for operating costs to pay the doctors and nurses. In April 2013, Fort Walton Beach Medical Center picked up that resource.”

Despite funding gaps, Bridgeway and other local health centers are still trying to make resources accessible. Bridgeway has recently worked with local employers as well as the Okaloosa County School District to implement mental health training. Additionally, the Mental Health Association of Okaloosa and Walton Counties has support groups and training.

“The word ‘suicide’ scares people, they just don’t know what to do,” McFarland said. “You hear people say, ‘Pray for my wife, she has cancer’ but not, ‘Pray for my wife, she has depression.’ To see the community try to provide support is a positive sign. We need to come together.”

There’s a reluctance when it comes to getting treatment for mental illness. There’s the stigma and also the cost, McFarland said.

“The phone book has pages of psychiatrists with private practices, but that doesn’t help people who can’t afford to pay or are under-insured,” he said. “They’re not in the frame of mind to get help, they feel like they’re a burden.”

McFarland also points out that people are less likely to feel ashamed about being seen at a primary doctor’s office than a psychiatrist’s. Which is why he believes primary care doctors should be screening every patient for depression.

It’s often hard for family and friends to know when to intervene. McFarland said the warning signs are not always what you’d expect. A common sign to look for are changes in someone’s behavior.

“It’s not just the behavior itself,” McFarland said. “Maybe the person is typically gregarious but has been moping around. It’s about the change in the norm. When someone is mopey and depressed and all of the sudden gets better, that’s the red flag. It could well be that they have made the decision. You see that with anybody who has a decision to make. But it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Even someone in treatment can be at risk.

“The average person may say ‘Oh, they’re better,’ ” McFarland said. “But as that person starts to climb out of the depths of depression, they’ve been energized.”

Treatment for mental illness should “look at the whole person,” McFarland explained. Sometimes a person needs food or shelter. At Chautauqua Healthcare, patients are offered daily programs as an alternative from full-time care. Patients can come in for a few hours from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., have a hot meal and receive treatment.

Support and healing

Amanda Grandy started to notice something was wrong after a series of incidents involving Niceville High School students. One student died of suicide in August 2016 and another in July of this year.

“Why are so many kids feeling this way? Nobody’s talking about it,” she said.

In August, Grandy and a group of Niceville women decided to do something and start the difficult conversation. They reached out to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and began planning an Out of the Darkness Walk. Nearly 250,000 people participate in the walks throughout hundreds of cities nationally, according to AFSP.

“My goal is for people to talk to one another,” Grandy said. “We’re also working on a support crisis hotline and peer support groups. We don’t want these kids being alone in the darkness.”

The response to the walk — scheduled for 4 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Niceville High School football stadium — has been positive so far with 181 people registered to participate. Grandy said the support has become more widespread following the death of 14-year-old Connor Bartlett, a freshman at Fort Walton Beach High School, in September. Students from local high schools have helped with the walk, from selling T-shirts to making inspirational signs for the walk route.

“We’ll have speakers and release butterflies after the walk,” Grandy said. “It’s like a big hug for the school.”

There is a big need for teen resources. According to a report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for children age 10-14 has doubled from 2007-2014 across the country. Grandy said she wants to create a “culture change” where parents aren’t afraid to talk about depression with their kids.

According to the 2016 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, almost half of high school students in local counties have said they struggled with depression. The survey asks participating high school students, “In the past year have you felt depressed or sad most days even if you felt OK sometimes?” In Okaloosa County, 43 percent of students answered “yes” or “YES!” In Walton County, 42 percent said yes, as did 38 percent in Santa Rosa County.

In 2015, a total of four teens ages 14 to 19 years old committed suicide in the area, according to the Florida Department of Health.

It wasn’t until she was deep in the planning that Grandy remembered how close the subject is to her. She was just 8 years old when her mother attempted suicide by overdosing on pills.

“I thought, ‘There’s a reason why I’m doing this,’ ” Grandy said. “It’s helped me. I want the kids to help each other and be their light.”

In 2011, Donna Williamson started the AFSP Panhandle Chapter which organizes events from Tallahassee to Pensacola. She said she’s proud to see the event expand to Niceville and create more awareness.

At the walks, people wear different colored beads associated with their own personal story. It helps people to connect and create friendships with people who can relate. It also allows people to be part of the change, Williamson said.

Watching someone struggle with mental illness is hard. Finding an outlet for support is healing.

“I think people visualize the walk as a somber event, but we celebrate the lives we lost,” Williamson said. “You’ll see tears, but there’s no shame. You’re defined by how you lived, not how you died.”

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