Members of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs highlighted Wednesday the state’s effort to address veteran suicide at a House subcommittee meeting.
The presentation comes as suicide prevention experts fear the COVID-19 pandemic will disproportionately impact vulnerable members of the state’s veteran community.
Despite a federal report recently suggesting a decrease in veteran suicides, the 2019 data is years-old and does not account for the pandemic. Other indicators, meanwhile, suggest the pandemic is indeed an aggravating factor.
Speaking to the House Local Administration & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, FDVA Executive Director James Hartsell pointed to other data points of concern. The Veteran Crisis Line, he noted, reported a drastic increase in communication volume from August 2020 to 2021, a time frame that coincides with the pandemic.
In all, the Veteran Crisis Line — a national 24/7 suicide prevention hotline — has logged a 7% increase in calls, 40% increase in online chats and 98% increase in texts since 2020. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay also reported an increase in crisis and suicide prevention calls.
Hartsell listed increased isolation, ongoing fatigue and an uncertainty of the future as added stressors amid the pandemic. The chaotic withdraw from Afghanistan, he suggested, further frustrated other veterans.
“We all are familiar with the added stress that COVID brought on all of us, individually and as families,” Hartsell said. “You can only imagine how that is only increased (for) veterans who are dealing with other issues before COVID.”
Speaking to lawmakers, FDVA Suicide Prevention and Research Specialist Lauren Stentz highlighted several steps the state is taking to address veteran suicide.
The Florida Governor’s Challenge, Stentz said, is among the state’s latest efforts. Implemented in 2019, the call-to-action initiative is a nationwide effort to harmonize state and local veteran suicide prevention efforts.
Stentz also highlighted a new statewide veteran suicide prevention training program. The cost-free course will familiarize civilians with signs of suicidal ideation and will also provide suicide prevention resources.
“We’re really approaching this in the same way as CPR,” Stentz said. “We want as many people to know how to do CPR as possible so if someone is choking in a restaurant, there’s someone who can jump to their aid. Along those lines, we want as many Floridians as possible to be recognize the red flags for suicide risk.”
Preliminary 2020 suicide data provided by the VA noted an increase in suicidal ideation among some veteran populations, Stentz said. The suicide rate among active duty troops, she added, also showed an increase in the last year.
“The 2020 data is probably going to be shocking to us because of COVID,” Republican Rep. David Smith, a former Marine pilot, said after the presentation.
More than 1.5 million veterans and active-duty service members reside in Florida.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.