Veteran suicides are down by nearly 50 percent in Northeast Florida from 2019 to 2021.
That’s according to comprehensive data recently released by The Fire Watch, an organization that is building a life-saving network of community members and organizations that are trained to identify the early warning signs of veterans in crisis and to direct those veterans to the help they need.
“We feel that we’re on the right track and doing the right things,’ said U.S. Navy veteran and The Fire Watch Executive Director Nick Howland. “Our goal is to really reach veterans where they live, work and play.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report also showed decreases in veteran suicide deaths and suicide rates during the two most recent years for which mortality data is available, 2019 and 2020.
According to the VA report, released in September of 2022, fewer veterans died by suicide in 2020 than in any year since 2006. In 2020, there were 6,146 veteran suicide deaths, which was 343 fewer than in 2019. That means 16.8 veterans committed suicide each day in 2020. That number was at its highest in 2018 when it was 18.6 per day.
Northeast Florida is made up of seven counties – Baker, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns - and includes the cities of Jacksonville and Saint Augustine as well as military bases such as Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Howland said approximately one in four residents of the region have a military connection.
“In 2019 we started to see and hear what appeared and ended up being a record number of veteran suicides in Northeast Florida,” Howland said.
That led to the formation of The Fire Watch by a number of veteran advocacy groups. Howland said the nonprofit was founded on three principles: That suicide is preventable; that suicide can be prevented by connecting veterans to the help and resources they need before they slip into crisis; and community involvement.
“What we’re doing is akin to CPR,” he explained. “We are training church members, colleagues, co-workers, friends and neighbors to recognize the warning signs of veterans in crisis and to connect and get veterans the help they need.”
Thus far, 4,000 volunteers have been trained in the Watch Stander program. Free, suicidal behavior intervention training is offered through the organization’s website. The training covers basic military culture and key steps supporters can take to connect veterans with life-saving resources.
“At the same time we launched that program, we said we want to get microdata on veteran suicides,” continued Howland.
NLP Logix was engaged to collect the data from the Florida Department of Health and the American Community Survey. The report found that veteran suicides in Northeast Florida dropped from 78 in 2019 to 42 in 2021, representing a 46 percent decrease. During the same period, veteran suicides decreased by 4 percent across the entire state of Florida.
Howland said there are several warning signs that can indicate an individual is thinking about suicide: They begin engaging in dangerous behavior when previously they had not; they start talking about suicide; or they begin isolating themselves.
“Those are all warning signs of veterans in crisis,” he said.
Risk factors for suicide include financial or relationship pressures and the loss of a sense of purpose when transitioning out of the military, Howland said.
“We know when veterans are at the highest risk and that’s generally the first year of separation from the military and all those risk factors come into play then,” he said.
The report also found that an increasing number of female veterans are dying by suicide. Although women represent 10 percent of the overall veteran population in Florida, the suicide rate for female veterans rose significantly in 2021, reaching its highest point over the past 10 years. As in previous years, suicide is disproportionately common among Caucasian veterans.
However, there was a 3 percent increase in the proportion of minority veteran suicides statewide in 2021. The percentage of veteran suicides in Florida involving a firearm increased to 81 percent in 2021. That represents a six-point increase from 2019.
To review the full data report or to register to become a Watch Stander, visit here. The Fire Watch | Veteran Suicide Prevention
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Dial 988 then Press 1, text 838255 or online here.
Reach Julia LeDoux at Julia@connectingvets.com.