6 people died by suicide in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. Experts fear more
Tampa Bay Times October 3, 2023
TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Arthur Schnurpel’s daughter heard it in his voice. Not his usual soft-spoken tenor, but something different — inconsolable.
Three days earlier, Hurricane Ian had made landfall in Lee County. Walls of water crashed into coastal homes, tearing buildings from foundations, leaving carnage.
But the storm’s damage, it would soon become clear, swelled beyond physical destruction.
Hurricane Ian wrought or worsened widespread mental anguish that, for at least six senior Floridians, ended in their suicides. It’s a tragic toll that researchers warn could worsen.
About 20 miles inland on that September day, Schnurpel had hoisted his wife, who is disabled, onto a makeshift raft as water spilled from the Caloosahatchee River into their home.
For hours, Schnurpel, 70, had stood partially submerged in rising saltwater, wondering if they were going to die. All around him were his life’s possessions, his history, the retirement he’d built in Florida after moving from Indiana. He watched it all melt into a thick brown sludge.
Rescue crews eventually whisked the couple to a hospital, where his wife, who had Stage 5 Parkinson’s, was kept. Schnurpel begged to stay, but was discharged and sent away.
Now it was the first day of October. He didn’t have money or an ID. He didn’t have his glasses, and his truck was flooded. He had managed to keep his phone alive, though, and called his only daughter, Shawnya Scott, at home in the Midwest.
“Dad, it’s going to be OK, let me help you. I can fill out FEMA paperwork,” Scott remembers saying, but her father stopped her. He didn’t have insurance, he said, panicking. He took care of his wife — had done so for the last three years — and he knew he couldn’t help her without stable housing. Where would they go?
His tongue was so swollen he could hardly talk, Scott remembers.
“Shawnya, I just need to know that you still love me,” he said to his daughter.
“There was silence. Then I said, ‘Of course I love you, Dad. We’re going to get this sorted out.’”
It would be their last conversation. Schnurpel died by suicide later that day.
Elsewhere in Lee County, another man in his 70s was telling his neighbors he’d lost everything.
A full-time delivery driver, he had ridden out the storm in a neighbor’s room of the building where he had lived for nearly three decades. When the floodwaters came into his bottom-floor apartment, they left an inch of mud and soiled furniture behind.
“Who would have thought at 73 that I’d have to start over,” he said.
They found his body the following day.
Over the next two months, four others in the region would take their own lives. Of the six who died, all were older adults. At least two lived with preexisting mental illnesses. Half were without insurance and feared becoming homeless.
In the aftermath of disaster, beyond the toppled buildings, twisted street signs and billions of dollars in repairs, communities have to reckon with another, insidious harm: the burden on mental health.
Research has found that up to half of people who live through a disaster struggle with anxiety and depression, substance use or post-traumatic stress disorder, said Jennifer Horney, an epidemiology professor at the University of Delaware who studies the effects of catastrophe on health.
The result is often an increase in suicides.
In the year that Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, suicides there spiked by 29%. When Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found suicides increased, too.
The report urged leaders to build mental health services into hurricane response plans — especially in the long recovery phase. Those who died by suicide after Hurricane Ian experienced varying stressors.
There was the 81-year-old man whose winter home was ruined, who was despondent over the loss of his belongings.
The 65-year-old man in Cape Coral who had struggled with mental illness most of his life, who had faced housing insecurity once before and was scared to do so again. He left a note making reference to the destruction of his home.
There was the 79-year-old staunch conservative who wore suspenders and a sun hat. He was a bookish man, described by one neighbor, who had a military background working with submarines. He had gotten rid of his insurance a few months earlier.
Overwhelmed by Ian’s damage, he quickly sold his home for little money to “We Buy Ugly Houses,” but by November, he’d become distraught by the decision and unsure of where he would live.
Then, there was the 69-year-old retired nurse living on Pine Island. She was still grieving the husband she’d been with for 36 years, who had died the year prior. They’d moved from Michigan so he could live out his dream of boating on warm waters. After Ian hit, she confided in neighbors that she was frustrated with her insurance company, with whom she was fighting over her claim. She was depressed, she said, because of the piles of debris strewn around town now two months later.
Her body was found after she didn’t show up to family Thanksgiving.
All but one of the deaths resulted from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
A grueling recovery
These six documented suicides could be directly tied to the storm by medical examiners, who considered notes left by the deceased, proximity to the disaster and statements made by family and friends. But the true toll may well be higher.
Lee County is entering year two of recovery — a window that research shows is a critical time.
Horney and her collaborators analyzed 281 natural disasters in the U.S., looking at suicide rates in affected communities before and after the crisis.
Rates leapt the highest two years post-disaster, she found, when the initial response had faded but damage remained extensive. “Recovery can be so long and arduous and expensive,” she said. “It’s that hopelessness that sets in.”
Immediately after a storm, communities can often tap funds that boost local emergency mental health services, Horney said. People’s mental health may even improve as they come together to rebuild.
But those resources run out. And as the grind of recovery sets in, people’s well-being can crater.
In Florida, mental health funding and resources are particularly scarce — a worrisome stat as experts warn of natural disasters’ compounding effects.
Last year, Florida ranked 49th in the nation for access to mental health care, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America, which considered measures such as affordability and availability of clinicians.
Historically, Florida has spent one of the lowest dollar amounts per resident on mental health — as much as 10 times lower than leading states.
In July, the state’s budget allotted $2.5 billion for mental health and substance use disorder support, a step toward closing the gap. Summer in Florida brings spaghetti models and, sometimes, blaring weather alarms. For a storm survivor, each brush, however distant, might dig up unwanted memories.
In areas where wildfires have spread, people have reported being triggered by simple gusts of wind, said Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness out of Columbia University. Where hurricanes or floods have wrecked communities, heavy rain and seasonal weather changes can spark a trauma response.
Laura Sampson, a professor at Stony Brook University who focuses on the effects of disaster on health, has studied community responses after hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria. Her takeaway: The vulnerable get more vulnerable.
That includes people living in poverty or paycheck to paycheck, those with unstable housing, people with chronic health conditions or those already living with a mental illness, as well as older adults, she said.
Almost 30% of Lee County residents are seniors. Nearly a fifth of residents under 65 and not on Medicare live without health insurance.
The ability to bounce back from disaster can be vastly different for neighbors in the same community. It takes more than just money, though that plays a big role, Sampson said. It’s also support from neighbors, family and friends that can make a difference.
Rebuilding a community
A week after Ian hit, Jeanine Joy was driving down a Fort Myers road when Jimmy Buffett’s “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season” came on the radio.
“I must confess, I could use some rest. I can’t run at this pace very long,” he sang. Joy burst into tears.
She was on her way to deliver aid to the displaced, part of a larger response she was leading as president and CEO of the United Way of Lee, Hendry and Glades counties.
She and nine colleagues had spent two intense days operating the county’s 211 Helpline as the storm angled toward their coast, fielding calls from frightened residents.
Families were panicking, pleading for help though it was too late to reach them. A 70-year-old woman who couldn’t swim called while neck-deep in water. The surge was rising when the call dropped.
“We would take turns taking calls and then breaking down,” Joy said. “There was so much need.”
In the year since the hurricane hit, hotline calls have kept coming. Three-quarters, Joy estimates, are from people experiencing mental health struggles. She said staff have repeatedly referred callers to the national 988 Suicide and Crisis Helpline.
Families were already struggling amid a growing affordability crisis and pandemic recovery, she said. Mental health had been on the decline, and provider shortages were widespread.
People who were behind on rent fell further behind. Some who had struggled with mental illness were living with post-traumatic stress. The helpers — people who had perhaps just recovered from pandemic-induced burnout — were facing another protracted, messy crisis.
For about four months, at least, checks rolled in.
In recent months, they’ve dropped off.
But hurricane survivors still need to pay doctors’ bills and rent. They need car payments and help with child care so they can focus on battling insurance companies for repairs. They need school notebooks and mattresses, so they don’t have to sleep on the floor.
Whether it’s blue tarps on roofs, mangled boats or broken traffic lights, the memory of the storm remains close.
“It feels like we have only done the first layer of recovery,” said Madison Mitchell, who oversees fund distribution for the local United Way.
“I know that we will get through this as a community. I can say that with 100% certainty,” Mitchell said. “We need people to know that help exists, and it’s OK to ask for it.”
A call for action
Scott says she misses her dad’s gentle voice — the kindness in it.
She misses watching Indiana University basketball games together while eating popcorn and watermelon before bed. She misses his landscaping updates: He loved working in a wide-brimmed sun hat, planting flowers and mulching his yard. She misses visiting him down south. Schnurpel had spent 30 years working as a machine shop foreperson, and there was something special about seeing him so relaxed in the Florida sun. He loved the beach, and the seagulls really loved him. They’d flutter around in flocks, and he’d marvel at the life he was living in his coastal town, so different from the fields of Indiana.
Schnurpel loved his grandkids, his great-grandkids, though he was soft-spoken and often shy. He liked his quiet life — the only exception being his guitar.
It was the only possession salvaged from the home. Now, Schnurpel’s grandson plays it.
Scott tries to understand what happened. She thinks about the emergency responders who rescued him, the hospital staff who discharged him and sent him away, back to his destroyed home.
Why wasn’t there more help? she wonders.
Now, when she misses her dad, she plays a voicemail he left her on the day he died.
“Hey, Shawnya, it’s me,” Schnurpel says. “I just wanted to call and say I love ya. Bye-bye.”
Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24-hour National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by texting or calling 988 or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org .
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