Lawmakers call on Congress to recognize ‘epidemic of suicide’ among veterans

American Soldiers and US Flag. US Army
More than 1.5 million veterans and active duty service members reside in Florida.

A bipartisan pair of state lawmakers is urging the federal government to formally recognize and address “the epidemic of suicide” among military veterans in the United States.

The call-for-action comes as veteran suicide rates remain an ongoing concern in the military and veteran community. It also comes amid fears the COVID-19 pandemic may aggravate mental health challenges among veterans and service members alike.

Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite of Wellington and Republican Sen. Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills are proposing memorials (HM 63 & SM 302) in the upcoming Legislative Session.

“In 2017, Senator Burgess and I came together to start the Legislative Veterans Caucus,” Willhite said. “As a Veteran and the former executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, he understands how important our message is. It is a pleasure to be working with him again to bring veterans’ issues to the forefront.”

Though a recently released VA report suggests veteran suicides are trending downward, the report cites 2019 data — the most recent available — and does not account for the COVID-19 pandemic. Other indicators, meanwhile, suggest the pandemic is indeed an aggravating factor.

According to the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, the Veteran Crisis Line noted a drastic increase in communication volume between August 2020 to 2021, a timeframe that coincides with the pandemic. A national 24/7 suicide prevention hotline, the Crisis Line logged a 7% increase in calls, 40% increase in online chats and 98% increase in texts in 2020.

“The statistics tell a devastating story and our heroes need help,” said Burgess, a member of the Army Reserve. “Every year in Tallahassee, the Legislature reaffirms our support for veterans and their families. Thank you to Rep. Willhite for asking me to sponsor this memorial in the Senate. Serving our nation has no party affiliation and neither should serving our veterans.”

The memorial lists several factors contributing to the “epidemic” of suicide in the military community, including mental health challenges such as sleep disorders, traumatic brain injuries and chronic pain diagnoses. Veterans who die by suicide, the memorial states, are more likely to live with mental health challenges than members of the civilian population. A total of 553 Florida veterans died of suicide in 2019, according to the VA.

“Some veterans have reported difficulty in transitioning to civilian employment, as their highly developed skills obtained in military service may not translate to higher-level civilian jobs, and the resulting economic disparities, unemployment, poverty, and homelessness among veterans are shown to be risk factors for veteran suicide,” the memorial adds.

More than 1.5 million veterans and active duty service members reside in Florida. If passed, the Legislature will send copies of the memorial to President Joe Biden, the U.S. Senate President, U.S. Speaker of the House and to each member of Florida’s congressional delegation.

Jason Delgado

Jason Delgado covers news out of the Florida State Capitol. After a go with the U.S. Army, the Orlando-native attended the University of Central Florida and earned a degree in American Policy and National Security. His past bylines include WMFE-NPR and POLITICO Florida. He'd love to hear from you. You can reach Jason by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter at @byJasonDelgado.


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