Florida may soon launch a Veteran Suicide Prevention Pilot Program under legislation sponsored by a bipartisan pair of lawmakers.
The proposals (HB 1351 and SB 1712) would require the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs to offer pertinent training to county and city veteran service organizations. According to the measures, the training would emphasize crisis counseling that is tailored to veterans.
Republican Sen. Danny Burgess — a member of the Army Reserve — and Democratic Rep. Ben Diamond are the bill sponsors.
“The epidemic of veteran suicide is both unacceptable and preventable. More than 1.5 million veterans call Florida home, and we owe them a debt of gratitude we can never fully repay,” Diamond said. “We have a responsibility to honor their service with the support they need to thrive. The Veteran Suicide Prevention Pilot Program will strengthen state and local efforts to improve veterans’ access to quality mental health care and end the veteran suicide epidemic.”
On average, more than 500 veterans commit suicide each year in Florida. There are signs, however, the issue is growing worse.
Despite a 2019 federal report suggesting veterans are committing suicide less, the Veteran Crisis Line — a 24/7 suicide prevention service — is reporting a dramatic increase in calls.
The nonprofit 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, meanwhile, has also reported an increase.
“The statistics tell a devastating story; our heroes need help,” said Burgess, the former Executive Director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs (FDVA). “Fortunately, Florida has committed to protecting those who protected us. Our Veteran Service Officers are on the frontlines every day as the first point of contact for veterans in crisis. This pilot program provides additional specialized training for our VSOs with an emphasis on suicide prevention.”
Notably, suicide prevention experts fear the COVID-19 pandemic will disproportionately impact vulnerable members of the state’s veteran community.
Speaking in June to the House Local Administration & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, FDVA Executive Director James Hartsell listed increased isolation, ongoing fatigue and an uncertainty of the future as added stressors amid the pandemic. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, he suggested, further frustrated other veterans.
Maj. John Kieffer, a Vietnam veteran and Silver Star recipient, described the pilot program as a “critical” step in battling the veteran suicide epidemic.
“As an infantry combatant of the Vietnam War, I have not only experienced the emotional and moral injury that war inflicts, but also the loss of a friend, a fellow combat veteran, to suicide,” Kieffer said.
More than 1.5 million veterans and active-duty service members reside in Florida.