In The Suicide Memory Garden's labyrinth, bricks with engraved names circle around each other. Last year 32 people died from suicide in Alachua County, according to Florida Department of Health statistics. (Angela DiMichele/WUFT News)

Alachua County Responds To Growing Suicide Trend With Community-Wide Training


Updated, Oct. 19, 2018.

Ciara Knerr remembers the day she tried to take her own life two months ago.

She said her experience left her feeling worse than before she entered the hospital. She felt nurses and doctors didn’t seem to care about her mental health after ensuring medical stability. She then stayed at a psychiatric hospital for three days.

Stigma surrounding mental health and suicide is one of many contributing factors to growing youth suicide trends, Alexendra Martinez, Alachua County Crisis Center director, said.

The University of Florida psychology senior said not even her abnormal psychology class explained how or why people turn to suicide, a preventable cause of death.

“No one was emotionally supporting me,” she said, tears spilling from her eyes.

The Florida Department of Health statistics have shown that Alachua County’s suicide crude death rate from ages 12 to 25 soared from four to 12.2 in the last year alone. Comparatively, the state’s rate is 10.2.

This rate means that 32 Alachua County residents died by suicide in 2017, and nine of them were from ages 12 to 25. Surrounding counties, such as Citrus and Putnam, have suicide death rates two times higher than in Alachua.

The Florida Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics compiled the suicide crude death rate from 1998 to 2017. The rate has climbed from 4 to 12.2 in one year.

The suicide crude death rate is the number of people who died by suicide among the population of a given area.

The latest national data from 2015 shows that 44,193 people died by suicide, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the country. In Florida, 3,122 people died by suicide in 2016.

Martinez said the county is shifting conversations about suicide and mental health awareness toward community members in response to these growing trends. Looking beyond just mental health diagnosis for causes of suicide can save lives, she said.

“Not everybody who is struggling with mental health issues is going to be suicidal. And not everybody who is suicidal necessarily has a mental health diagnosis,” Martinez said. “So, we have to think much broader.”

The county is thinking broader, Martinez said, by implementing more community- and school-wide suicide prevention trainings. Sept. 26 marked one of these events where Gainesville and Alachua residents learned about the current suicide trends, warning signs of suicide and basic suicide intervention skills.

“We have to think about suicide as a public-health issue versus just specifically a mental-health one,” Martinez said.

The light blue line depicts the suicide crude death rate where the gray line depicts Alachua County. The county is outlined in red on the map to the right. Data Source: Florida Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Scott Poland, a licensed psychologist and youth suicide expert, is speaking to all Alachua County Public School board members, all principals and the Superintendent Karen Clarke Tuesday as well as hosting a parent meeting. He will also talk with Alachua County Public School psychologists and counselors and present to the community about suicide prevention Wednesday morning.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for teenagers. Poland said the death by suicide rates in middle school girls has increased dramatically. He mentioned the recent Netflix original series called, “13 Reasons Why,” and its popular depiction of suicide as a possible contributor.

At the root of the youth suicide issue is under-treated or untreated mental illness, Poland said, and adverse childhood experiences.

Florida has one of the worst counselor-to-student ratios in the country, Poland said.

About 25 states have passed legislation that requires a kind of suicide prevention training in schools.

Florida is not one of them.

For high school students in Florida, 10.7 percent made a suicide plan, and 7.6 percent made one or more suicide attempts in the last 12 months, according to a survey done every two years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the scope of an Alachua County high school of 2,000 students, Poland said this percentage means that 152 kids who walked into schools Monday morning made a suicide attempt in the last 12 months.

“The kid who made a previous attempt is the most likely to attempt tomorrow, and for the most part, most of the adults in their life have absolutely no idea,” Poland said. “We have to talk about this more.”

Knerr said one way friends, family and the community could help suicidal individuals is by taking harmful objects away from someone who may have suicidal thoughts. Her fiance has hidden knives, scissors and sharp items from her before.

Poland acknowledged this as “means restriction” and agreed that this does help. Simply taking away the most common methods used to die by suicide, Poland said, can lower suicide death rates.

“No one person, no one thing is ever to blame. When a suicide occurs it’s very complex,” he said. “But at the simplest level in America, it means secure the guns. That’s the number one method of suicide in America.”

Knerr echoed Polands’ thoughts. If someone in the Gainesville community takes his or her own life, it is a problem everyone should care about, Knerr said.

Knerr’s experience with health care providers after attempting suicide left her feeling like no one truly cared, she said. The lack of emotional support she received that day was another trigger in her lifelong history of mental health issues.

“They were almost treating me like I was in trouble because I did it to myself,” she said.

One nurse, Knerr said, mentioned how her own daughter harms herself, but she does it for attention. Knerr said a doctor told her he could tell she wasn’t really trying to kill herself because she didn’t cut in the right spot.

She said she appreciates community-wide suicide prevention trainings and thinks it will provide some emotional support for people in the community that is currently lacking.

“If you don’t believe them, they have nothing,” Knerr said.

Knerr said there are not always clear warning signs when someone is suicidal. Suicide is a shunned topic of conversation, and more education about it needs to be relevant and accessible, she said.

More community projects like The Suicide Memory Garden located at 4810 NW 8th Ave. in Gainesville could make suicide survivors feel empowered, she said.

Touching Aerial Tour of Gainesville’s Suicide Memory Garden from Betterme Productions on Vimeo.

Knerr said she can envision a future for herself now that she’s had time to look back on her suicide attempt.

“I’ve definitely seen that sometimes life is good — and it’s worth it,” she said. “One small deterrent is enough to stop it.”

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the Alachua County Crisis Line at 352-264-6789 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

About Angela DiMichele

Angela is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing

Check Also

UF Health rolls out Florida’s first mobile stroke treatment unit

The only mobile stroke treatment unit in Florida hit the road Tuesday. UF Health runs one of only 20 mobile stroke programs in the nation.