PENSACOLA, Fla. — Veterans are 1.5 times more likely than the general population to die by suicide, with 20 veterans on average taking their own lives each day.
To help combat this crisis, Innisfree Hotels has started its own in-company initiative to train employees working with veterans or individuals experiencing mental health problems with the help of Fire Watch’s Watch Stander program.
“Being aware of what veterans sacrifice in service to America is important and then also understanding that many of them do suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. They’ve seen a whole lot more than many of us have seen and often they feel unappreciated,” said Innisfree Vice President of Corporate Culture Lusharon Wiley.
“And then often when they have completed their service, just transitioning back into civilian life can be a challenge as well. So just being there and understanding some of what they may be experiencing will make us a better service to them.”
Fire Watch formed in 2019 to lead regional efforts to reduce veteran suicide. Its Watch Stander program mobilizes community members to be vigilant to the concerns of veterans and to direct them to the support they need.
Since April, 51% of employees in Innisfree’s five hotels in Pensacola and Escambia County took part in the Watch Stander program that prepares them to approach and assist not only veterans but any guests who are dealing with a mental health crisis or having 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, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a Florida Veteran Suicide Prevention Month Proclamation, reminding Floridians of the state’s continuing pledge to offer support and resources for veterans dealing with mental health, bringing attention to the growing crisis of veteran suicide.
From 2001 through 2018, the number of veteran suicides increased on average by 47 deaths per year, according to the National Veteran Suicide Veteran annual report. Based on data by Fire Watch, 153 veterans died by suicide in Escambia County between 2010 and 2018, a rate of 23.3 suicides per 100,000 veterans.
Thankfully, there are welcoming signs this is decreasing as nationally the adjusted rate for veterans from 2018 to 2020 fell by 9.7%. In Escambia County during the same time frame, it went down to a rate of 22.9.
Community plays key role in prevention
Lauren Anzaldo, suicide prevention coordinator for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, does trainings on how to respond to people showing signs of suicidal thoughts.
Multiple factors could lead to death by suicide for veterans such as access to health care, exposure to trauma, mental health concerns, homelessness, financial difficulties, and family stresses, she said.
Anzaldo tells trainees to look for signs that could 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.
Even with all the training, she understands it takes a community to provide the help and support where resources are available, and places like Innisfree Hotels is one of the industries in communities that can help.
Asking for help is the very first step in working to combat veteran suicide and the recent decrease in veteran suicide proves it is possible to further help veterans and establish communities for them to feel safe and with purpose, Anzaldo said.
“When I speak about suicide and speak about mental health crises, I couldn’t come to work every day and continue working if I didn’t see that suicide is preventable. And there are anchors of hope out there,” Anzaldo said. “So the work that I do is extremely important and while it can be very difficult, it is meaningful and it’s important work. And I see progress being made through community partnerships, through the trainings that we’re providing, through the community stepping up and getting involved in this issue and taking ownership of it. So there’s 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 contained her father’s struggles finding a purpose after leaving the Air Force in the late ’70s.
Milkeris spent her life thinking her father was the strongest person she ever met. He had a mind of steel where he could do anything to which he put his mind.
When reading that letter, she and her family learned that he also believed all of those things, but he didn’t know what to do when he came back to his small town of Scio, New York.
He needed something to help him find his purpose again and eventually he became the president of the New York Moose Lodge, a philanthropy group of individuals who get together and raise funds and donations for their local communities. It also gives men an opportunity to gather socially, to care for one another’s needs and celebrate life together.
Whether it is individuals on the street, organizations helping to end veteran suicide, or industries like Innisfree Hotels, Milkeris knows that whenever someone takes that step to help a veteran it can save another person’s life.
“You have individuals that 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 with us being so saturated with the military in this area, that it’s important for this area,” Milkeris said. “Because there’s so many individuals that even once they get out, they stay in this area because it’s beautiful, and it feels like a home to them. And so if you’re going to keep them here, then we want to help them stay mentally sound so that they can continue to live here as a positive asset to their community and then their families and ultimately to themselves.”