OKEECHOBEE COUNTY, Fla. — Tucked in the middle of the state, amid fields, farms, and the lake that bears its name is Okeechobee County. Population, just over 42,000 people.
“We’re a small community where everybody knows everybody,” said Okeechobee County School District Assistant Superintendent Dylan Tedders. It’s also a small community where the school district is the county’s largest employer, with nearly 900 staff members.
“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 district’s second in charge.
So back in October, when a long-time school district department director died by suicide, Tedders described it as “a shock to the community.” Especially when, less than one month later, a school guidance counselor also died by suicide.
“When you look at it just on paper you say, OK what is going on,” said Tedders.
Then, came news about a week-and-a-half ago. This time involving a district high school math teacher beloved by so many.
He also died by suicide. In less than 10 months, this quiet, rural county in Florida has lost three of its school district employees to suicide.
“I hadn’t experienced anything like this happening before and this is my 25th year in the district,” said Tedders, “It’s tough, it’s tough,” he said as he became visibly emotional talking about the employees.
Out of respect for the families, we’ve been asked not to identify them. It’s not known if work-related pressures contributed to any of the losses. According to experts, suicide is not a common reaction to adversity or mental illness.
For the Okeechobee County School District, the passing of three staff members within a 10-month period was enough to inspire a new focus on the overall mental health and well-being of its staff, not just its students.
“We felt like we had a good system in identifying students in need, it’s a requirement now. But there wasn’t a requirement for adults. So we needed to be able to provide that avenue,” said Tedders.
The district’s Director of Mental Health & Behavioral Supports, Katharine Williams, helped lead the charge. Beginning late last year, the district outsourced a psychologist who is available to employees via Telehealth, at no charge to them. It also gives employees a chance to stay completely anonymous versus seeking help through HR.
Humphries also organized a monthly health and wellness menu that will continue this upcoming school year with offerings to staff that include skateboarding, a book club, yoga and soon, the district will even be offering divorce counseling.
“Adults go through divorce and we wanted to help provide support for that,” said Tedders. When asked if a school district should have to offer such services, Tedders responded, “why wouldn’t we? Ultimately, we have to educate students but if our staff is not healthy are we educating our students to the full potential?”
Humphries said employees are utilizing all the new services and opportunities. She also said, more staff members have reached out to her office for help.
“It tells me that they know it’s ok to ask for help and there’s a need,” she said.
According to national surveys, in the last year since the pandemic, teacher stress and anxiety have soared while morale has plummeted.
Dr. Michael Grego, Superintendent of Pinellas County Schools and President of the Superintendent’s Association in Florida acknowledged the need for more mental health services for school staff statewide.
“This has been a very stressful year-and-a-half,” Grego said.
While districts have received millions in state funding to beef up their mental health services for students, it’s unclear if any of that money can also be used to support school staff. The Florida Department of Education has not responded to our questions about funding as it relates to mental health services for school staff.
In Okeechobee County, community partners are helping to pay for some of the additional expenses while the school district is covering the rest with no plans to stop.
“If we really want to take care of the students, we have to take care of the staff and if we even save one, then it’s worth it,” said Tedders.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.