Florida veterans have a significantly higher rate of taking their own lives compared to the national veteran suicide rate, according to the most recent data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But in Hillsborough County, that figure is far below the state and national averages, according to a Tampa Bay Times review of suicide figures.
In 2015, the most recent figures available, 557 Florida veterans ended their own lives. That’s a rate of 34.9 per 100,000 veterans, compared to the national average of 29.7 per 100,000 veterans.
Last year, at least 19 veterans took their own lives in Hillsborough County out of 197 total suicides, according to the county Medical Examiner’s Office. With nearly 100,000 veterans in the county, that’s a rate of slightly more than 19 per 100,000.
The problem is still daunting, and officials from Hillsborough County and Tampa are taking part in a national effort to find a solution. It’s called the Mayor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and their Families.
A combined effort by VA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the program is designed to reduce suicides among veterans, service members and their families using a public health approach.
Locally, the effort is being spearheaded by Hillsborough County because the county handles support services such as mental health, said Shayna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. The Tampa/Hillsborough team joins eight others around the nation chosen for their veteran population data, suicide prevalence rates and "capacity to lead the way," according to Rodriguez.
The challenge has five key objectives:
• Establish a suicide prevention team in the county, consisting of service members, veterans and family members.
• Increase access to the system and strengthen the service it provides.
• Identify those at risk.
• Implement best practices in areas such as reducing lethal means of suicide — distributing gun locks, for example; care after treatment; and training in intervention skills.
• Train and educate community partners and peers.
The local effort kicked off last month with a two-day summit attended by more than two dozen political leaders, VA personnel, veterans service organization members, the U.S. Central Command chaplain, local suicide prevention experts and parents of people who took their own lives.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman is spearheading the effort with the County Consumer and Veterans Services office. Haley is providing support and guidance.
The team identified strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats concerning current suicide prevention efforts. All agreed that support and resources are focused on veterans and suicide prevention, but the need remains for stronger collaboration among agencies, Rodriguez said.
Suicide risk is higher for veterans who do not receive mental health care treatment at the VA.
Haley Director Joe Battle said, "Suicide prevention is the number one clinical priority for the VA, and it’s imperative that we also make it a priority for the community so we can get our service members and veterans the help they need."
Ellsworth "Tony" Williams, who runs the non-profit suicide prevention group Veterans Counseling Veterans, welcomed the local effort.
"Veteran suicides are a national problem with a local solution that starts with the community," Williams said.
Work groups will meet within the year to tackle action items, Rodriguez said. More information is available through the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital Eligibility Office, (813) 972-2000, extension 1710.
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The Pentagon announced no new deaths last week in ongoing operations.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 50 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 54 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.