OKEECHOBEE COUNTY, Florida – Nestled in the middle of the state, amid fields, farms and the lake that bears its name is Okeechobee County.
The population is just over 42,000 people.
“We are a small community where everyone knows everyone,” said Okeechobee County School District Assistant Superintendent Dylan Tedders. It is also a small community where the school district is the largest employer in the county, with nearly 900 employees.
“We know our people and our people know us. Most of them probably have our cell phone numbers, ”said Tedders, who worked as a high school principal in the county before becoming the second district manager.
So in October, when a longtime school district department head committed suicide, Tedders described it as “a shock to the community.” Especially when, less than a month later, a school guidance counselor also committed suicide.
“When you just look at it on paper, you say, OK, what’s going on,” Tedders said.
Then came the news about a week and a half ago. This time it was a high school math teacher loved by so many. He also died by suicide.
In less than 10 months, this quiet, rural Florida county has lost three of its school district employees to suicide.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before and this is my 25th year in the district,” Tedders said. “It’s tough, it’s tough,” he said as he became visibly moved to talk about the employees.
Out of respect for the families, we were asked not to identify them.
It is not known if work-related pressures contributed to any of the losses. Suicide is not a common reaction to adversity or mental illness, experts say.
For the Okeechobee County School District, the deaths of three staff members in a 10-month period was enough to inspire a new focus on the mental health and general well-being of its staff, not just His students.
“We felt we had a good system to identify students in need, it’s a requirement now. But there was no requirement for adults. So we had to be able to provide that avenue, ”Tedders said.
District Director of Mental Health and Behavioral Support Katharine Williams helped lead the charge.
Beginning at the end of last year, the district outsourced a psychologist who is available to employees through Telehealth at no cost to them. It also gives employees the option to remain completely anonymous instead of asking for help through HR.
Humphries also ran a monthly health and wellness menu that will continue this coming school year with staff offerings that include skateboarding, a book club, yoga and soon the district will even be offering advice on divorced.
“Adults go through a divorce and we wanted to help provide support for that,” Tedders said. When asked if a school district should offer such services, Tedders replied, “Why wouldn’t we do it? Ultimately, we have to educate students, but if our staff are not healthy, are we educating our students to their fullest potential? “
Humphries said employees are using all of the new services and opportunities. She also said more staff have come to her office for help.
“It tells me that they know it is okay to ask for help and that there is a need,” she said.
According to national surveys, in the last year since the pandemic, stress and anxiety among teachers has skyrocketed as morale has plummeted.
Dr. Michael Grego, superintendent of schools in Pinellas County and president of the Florida Superintendents Association, recognized the need for more mental health services for school staff statewide.
“It has been a very stressful year and a half,” said Grego.
While districts have received millions of state funds to boost their mental health services for students, it is not clear whether some of that money can also be used to support school staff. The Florida Department of Education did not respond to our questions about funding for mental health services for school personnel.
In Okeechobee County, community partners help pay for some of the extra expenses while the school district covers the rest without planning to stop.
“If we really want to take care of the students we have to take care of the staff and even if we save one it’s worth it,” Tedders said.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak to a certified auditor, call 1-800-273-8255.