It’s no secret that the veteran suicide rate is on the rise. That’s why the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been investing more money in mental health each year.
In Northeast Florida, five counties have joined together to combat this trend regionally. Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties signed an interlocal agreement in November 2019 creating The Fire Watch, a program designed to get at-risk veterans the support they need while there’s still time.
“We certainly have a crisis,” said Fire Watch Executive Director Nick Howland. “We have a crisis that is growing. We have a crisis where traditional methods do not seem to work. We’re at a point where, if we don’t figure out how to reverse the trend now, it’s only going to get worse.”
Indeed, the rate of veteran suicide is 1.5 times that of civilian suicide.
“We’ve lost over 6,000 veterans to suicide every year since 2008,” Howland said.
In 2017 — the latest year for which data is available — 6,139 U.S. military veterans took their own lives. The highest number was in the over-55 age group, but the highest rate was in the 18-to-34 category.
That’s significant, because that’s the age at which members of the military are transitioning out of active duty.
While many of the conditions that precipitate veteran suicide are the same as for non-veterans, untreated depression, life-changing events and feelings of hopelessness and loneliness are made worse by long deployments, exposure to conflict, long periods of isolation and PTSD.
And, due to COVID-19 and the isolation brought on by social distancing, Howland expects the numbers for 2020 to be extraordinarily high.
In addition to identifying and resolving weaknesses in the continuum of local resources, The Fire Watch conducts considerable community outreach. One of the key components is the Watch Stander Program, which educates members of the community about risk signs and resources available to veterans.
This is one way area residents can do their part to help those who have served their nation.
To join the effort, all one has to do is go to thefirewatch.org, click on Watch Standers and enroll. The process takes about 45 minutes, and those completing it will receive a wristband, car sticker and a wallet card that tells where to go for help.
Right now, The Fire Watch has a few hundred Watch Standers already signed up. The goal is 10,000, and Howland is encouraging people to get involved.
“Everybody has a role to play in ending this national tragedy,” he said.
In the 10 months since The Fire Watch was first formed, many people have stepped up to help the cause.
“We’ve had just amazing support from the community,” said Howland, “from our elected leaders, from the business community and, most importantly, from our other veteran service organizations.”
In particular, K9s For Warriors, the Cohen Veterans Network, the Wounded Warrior Project and the United Way have been especially supportive.
To learn more about The Fire Watch or to see a list of 400 resources available to Northeast Florida veterans, go to thefirewatch.org.