PENSACOLA, Fla. — Veterans are 1.5 times more likely than the general population to die by suicide, with an average of 20 veterans committing suicide each day.
To help combat this crisis, Innisfree Hotels has launched its own in-company initiative to train employees who work with veterans or those with mental health issues using Fire Watch’s Watch Stander program.
“It is important to be aware of what veterans sacrifice in service to America and to understand that many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They have seen much more than many of us have seen and often feel unappreciated,” said Innisfree Vice President of Corporate Culture Lusharon Wiley.
“And once they’ve completed their service, returning to civilian life can often be challenging, too. So by just being there and understanding some of what they may be experiencing, we can better serve them.”
Fire Watch was founded in 2019 to lead regional efforts to reduce veteran suicide. The Watch Stander program mobilizes community members to be vigilant about veterans’ concerns and direct them to the support they need.
Since April, 51% of employees at Innisfree’s five hotels in Pensacola and Escambia County have participated in the Watch Stander program, which prepares them to reach out and help not only veterans, but also all guests affected by mental illness. have a health crisis or suicidal thoughts.
An estimated 100,000 veterans live in Northwest Florida, which is home to multiple military bases, including Naval Air Station Pensacola, NAS Whiting, and Eglin Air Force Base.
In September, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a Florida Veteran Suicide Prevention Month proclamation reminding Floridians of the state’s ongoing commitment to providing support and resources to veterans dealing with mental health, drawing attention to the growing crisis of veteran suicide.
From 2001 through 2018, veteran suicides increased by an average of 47 deaths per year, according to the National Veteran Suicide Veteran’s Annual Report. Based on Fire Watch data, 153 veterans died by suicide in Escambia County between 2010 and 2018, a rate of 23.3 suicides per 100,000 veterans.
Fortunately, there are positive signs that this is declining, as nationally the adjusted rate for veterans fell 9.7% from 2018 to 2020. In Escambia County, it fell to 22.9 during the same period.
The community plays a key role in prevention
Lauren Anzaldo, suicide prevention coordinator for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, provides training on how to respond to people who show signs of suicidal ideation.
Multiple factors can lead to death by suicide for veterans, including access to health care, exposure to trauma, mental health problems, homelessness, financial problems and family stress, she said.
Anzaldo tells students to look for signs that can range from veterans talking about death or dying, changes in behavior, changes in sleep, feeling that life is not worth living, giving away possessions, anger, irritability, or hopelessness.
Despite all the training, she understands that it takes a community to provide the help and support where the resources are available, and places like Innisfree Hotels is one of the industries in communities that can help.
Getting help is the very first step in combating veteran suicide, and the recent decline in veteran suicide proves that it’s possible to help veterans further and build communities where they feel safe and purposed, Anzaldo said.
“When I talk about suicide and mental health crises, I wouldn’t be able to come to work every day and keep working if I didn’t recognize that suicide is preventable. And there are anchors of hope there,” Anzaldo said. “So the work I do is extremely important and while it can be very difficult, it is meaningful and important work. And I see progress being made through community partnerships, through the training we provide, through the community engaging and getting involved in this issue and taking responsibility for it. So there is hope.”
Lori Milkeris, director of the Military and Veterans Resource Center at UWF, found a note from her father after he died in 2015. It featured her father’s struggle to find purpose after he left the Air Force in the late ’70s.
Milkeris thought all her life that her father was the strongest person she had ever met. He had a mind of steel where he could do anything he set his mind to.
In reading that letter, she and her family learned that he believed all those things too, but he didn’t know what to do when he returned to his small town of Scio, New York.
Needing something to help him find his purpose again, he eventually became the president of the New York Moose Lodge, a charitable group of individuals who come together and raise funds and donations for their local communities. It also gives men a chance to gather socially, take care of each other’s needs and celebrate life together.
Whether it’s individuals on the street, organizations helping to end veteran suicide, or industries like Innisfree Hotels, Milkeris knows that when someone takes that step to help a veteran, it can change someone else’s life. to rescue.
“You have individuals who are willing to die for their country. And then they come back with so many invisible wounds that they don’t want to live. So that in itself is a struggle. So I think it’s important for this area now that we’re so saturated with the military in this area,” Milkeris said. “Because there are so many people that even once they’re out, they stay in this area because it’s beautiful and it feels like home to them. And so if you want to keep them here, we want to help them stay mentally healthy so they can continue to live here as a positive asset to their community and then to their families and ultimately to themselves.”