Veteran coalition fights suicide


OKEECHOBEE — The Greater Lake Okeechobee Veterans Service Coalition formed in the fall of 2023, and one of the main priorities for the coalition is suicide prevention. “Suicide prevention is everybody’s business,” said Frederick Borowicz community engagement and partnership coordinator for the VA.

Okeechobee County has roughly 3,000 veterans according to 2020 state statistics, and approximately 1,500 of those are registered with the VA Hospital.

“Of the 17 deaths that occur daily by suicide in the United States, 11 of those deaths by suicide are not receiving any care or services by the VA,” said Borowicz. “Based on this information, the VA wondered how they could have an impact on the lives of these families who are not registered. The best way to do that is through a community or public health approach actually going into the community and engaging with the people.”

Borowicz explained approximately half of veterans who receive care outside the VA don’t have that “touch” where the VA has the ability to provide some education, and the best way to have contact or a touch on those veterans is through the community where they live and thrive. Their approach is to go into the communities and work with existing organizations as well as develop coalitions to work on the three focus areas.

  • Identifying service members, veterans and their families and screening them for suicide risk;
  • Promote connectedness and improve care transitions;
  • Increase lethal means safety training and safety planning.

Borowicz said the veteran service organizations in this area are doing a wonderful job reaching out to the veterans in the greater Okeechobee area who are not receiving care through the VA.

The coalition in Greater Lake Okeechobee is focusing on the distribution of gun locks. This is being done at four different veteran service organizations. Borowicz explains that safe gun ownership is important in that even though the veteran does have the key, “the intent is to create layers, ways to delay. A crisis such as suicidality can last from minutes up to an hour, and by placing small barriers they cause a delay in accessing the means, in this case, a gun. We recommend they store their ammunition somewhere else than in the gun safe. Each layer implements part of a safety plan. It allows a greater length of time between the thought and the access to the means.”

As he said earlier, suicide prevention is everyone’s business, Borowicz repeated. “If everybody does a little, nobody has to do a lot. This coalition is the start of a garden, planting more seeds and providing more opportunities for veterans who might travel in different circles to have access to this information. It’s going to be vital to their well-being.” He went on to add that the gun locks are provided not only to veterans but also to other non-veteran service organizations.

This is not something we can do alone, said Myriam Glemaud assistant chief of mental health and behavioral sciences, so we want to reach out and build these coalitions.

If you are reading this story and are considering suicide, you can access the veteran/military crisis line by dialing 988 and then pressing 1. This is available 24/7. You will be connected with one of three nationwide call centers where you will speak with a crisis counselor, and they will get a follow up notification at the VA in the area where you are located. Even if you are not enrolled with the VA, you can use these services.

In addition, the Veterans Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care, and Treatment Act of 2020, also known as the Veterans COMPACT Act of 2020 allows veterans in a suicidal crisis to receive immediate treatment from any VA or non-VA medical facility free of cost, without having to enroll in VA healthcare. The only stipulation is that it must be a Baker-Act receiving facility. Raulerson Hospital is not one of these, but law enforcement would transport the veteran to a hospital which is Baker-Act receiving.

If a veteran would like a gun lock, he or she can contact any of the veteran organizations in Okeechobee, the sheriff’s office, the police department or the VA.