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Isolation Increases Florida’s Rural Suicide Rates

Rural counties across Florida and the nation are seeing suicide rates for youth almost double that of those in cities. Isolation, poverty, access to firearms, and a lack of mental health resources are all to blame.

If you want to visit Wauchula Florida, be prepared to see country roads stretching for miles without gas stations and the sound of buzzing cicadas.
It’s more than an hour southeast of Tampa, the closest metropolitan city. You’ll drive through three counties on the interstate and several back roads before reaching the center of town, named Main Street of course. There are churches on just about every corner, but no mental health clinic in this town of five thousand.

“One of the big problems in a rural area is lack of resources,” said Peggy Sadler. “There no private practitioners, mental health practitioners in Hardee County so if you refer somebody it has to go to our local mental health services center.”

Saddler is a guidance counselor at Hardee High School, the only high school in the county of almost 28 thousand residents. The closest mental health clinic, called Peace River Center, is a more than 30 minute drive to Bartow in Polk County. “For the average person, generally getting services, if you’re not going to Peace River Center, means you have to travel and that’s limiting for some people,” she said.

That’s a concern when the teen suicide rate in Florida’s small towns has doubled in the past 20 years. From 2012 through 2014, almost eight thousand youth younger than twenty one killed themselves. More than 500 lived in rural towns. Experts think the numbers could be much higher. And, they say, the statistics don’t address the number of suicide attempts.

Saddler, the high school counselor, said there isn’t a place in Wauchula where youth can be treated for anxiety or depression. “I could just make all kinds of a wish list,” Sadler said, “and it’s kind of interesting because I think even some of the larger counties around here, Highlands or whatever, I think in some ways they have the same dearth or programs.”

Compared to Wauchula, Highlands County is considerably more urban. Sebring, with 10,000 residents, and Avon Park with more than 8,000 residents, reach double the population of Wauchula. Agricultural communities like Wauchula aren’t the only places where isolation and a lack of resources increase suicide risk.

The Florida Keys is best known as a tourist destination. Monroe County stretches from Florida’s southeastern tip about 15 miles south of Miami all the way to the uninhabited Dry Tortugas. But this home to sandy beaches and quirky towns has the highest suicide rate in all of Florida.

Mary Lou Hoover works with a branch of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Key West. She said there were more than ten suicides just in Key West just this summer. That’s one death for every 2,500 residents. The first was a 15 year old boy. Most of the others, she said, were younger than 40.

“We know there’s an aspect to living here that eventually you have to grow up and be part of the community and it’s not always fun and games and partying ’til 2 in the morning,” Hoover said.

Back in Wauchula, Saddler said it’s a constant battle to get parents to realize that sometimes their child isn’t just being a stereotypical teen. “I think they don’t really see the signs of depression or anxiety or any other issues and if an adult exhibited the same things you’d say, ‘oh, he has problems’ because ‘oh, you’re a kid. You’ll get over it,” she said.

But, Saddler said in this small town they don’t always “get over it.”


WUSF is a partner with Health News Florida, a statewide collaborative reporting on health care.

Health reporting on WMFE is supported in part by AdventHealth.

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About Catherine Welch

Catherine Welch