Why are the Men of Wilton Manors Killing Themselves? Suicide Rate Three Times Higher than National Average

WILTON MANORS – The quiet  peacefulness of the Island City, a two-square-mile islet called Wilton Manors, just may be an illusion. True, the town helped push Greater Fort Lauderdale into the Number Four spot on a somewhat  controversial list of the gayest cities in America, published in January by But there is a flip side of this fun place. According to a report last  month in the Sun Sentinel, the bedroom community of roughly 12,000 souls has a higher  suicide rate than any of Broward County’s other 31 municipalities, and triple the national  suicide rate.

According to the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, there have been five or six reported suicides in Wilton Manors since 2008, compared with two suicides in 2006, and two in 2007. The past four years’ statistics translate to an annual rate of 47.3 suicides per population of 100,000 residents–the highest rate in Broward County and more than three times the county’s rate of 14 per 100,000.

Among 2011’s reported suicides, in August, a man with a reported history of mental illness, 44, shot himself; a gay man, 40, hanged himself in October following a romantic breakup; and a married man and father, 52, killed himself by stepping in front of a train: the man had reportedly been conflicted about his sexual identity.

“Gay people are still devalued and marginalized by our society,” offered Arlen Leight, Ph.D., a Wilton Manors-based clinical psychologist. “More than internalized homophobia, there is an internalized heterosexism that is a part of all of us who have grown up to believe that heterosexual lives and relationships are ‘the norm,’” added Leight, whose practice focuses on issues of sexuality and intimacy.  “As such, we do not feel our relationships–our way of being–are as good as those
of heterosexuals.”

Data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that the 45-to-54 age group accounts nationally for one in five suicides. It is the highest proportion of suicides for any age group. That number is ‘ground zero’ for much of Wilton Manors’ population, with the U.S. Census reporting that the 40 to 60 year-old demographic comprises 42 percent of the city’s overall population. That same demographic accounted for 64 percent of the suicides—or 14 of 22–in the city for the past four years.

“Within our community there is undue pressure, even greater than in the society-at-large, to fit in and conform, to have a certain look, to be outgoing and even to couple,” notes Dr. Leight. “Oppressed people often look for external validation to give a sense of self-esteem not offered by the greater culture. Such men and women are most vulnerable to feeling shamed
and depressed.”

City officials have scheduled a town hall meeting on April 19 to provide residents with information about recognizing the warning signs of suicide, and where to get help. It is putting the program together with help from the Florida Initiative for Suicide Prevention (FISP). A 2011 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality reported on a growing body of research that shows a “significantly elevated suicide risk among LGBT people compared to  heterosexual people.”