Mental health has been a frequent topic at the Capitol following more tragic news from Parkland. Two students who survived last year's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre took their own lives last month.
The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald bureau reports that while the Legislature allocated $69 million for student mental health after the tragedy, almost none of it went to suicide prevention. But some lawmakers have begun to study prevention programs.
Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee. He's troubled by a recent report of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In mid-February as his panel heard a presentation on suicide, he pointed to data showing Americans' life expectancy had dropped for the third year in a row.
"It's the first time we've seen that in this country since 1915 through 1918, which during that period we were dealing with a world war and an influenza epidemic that accounted for the decline in life expectancy in this country," Rodrigues said.
The CDC also found suicide was a factor in the more recent decline. "If you look back to 1999, we've seen a major increase in suicides," Rodrigues said.
Ute Gazioch, director of Substance Abuse and Mental Health for the Department of Children and Families, told the panel 3,187 Floridians lost their lives to suicide in 2017.
"That is an increase of 65 individuals from 2016. In the state of Florida, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death," she said. "We do have higher rates of suicide. Nationally, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death."
To prevent suicides, she says it's crucial to identify the populations with the highest rates. The age group in Florida with the highest suicide rate is 85 years and older – followed by the 55 to 64-year-old age group.
When it comes to services for veterans, a group at particular risk for suicide, Gazioch says DCF is focusing on peer counseling, vet-to-vet services, and on funding such programs. "They'll be subcontracting with 211 facilities in other areas, to actually have veteran peers provide care coordination, and a specific line that veterans could call for help and actually speak to another veteran," she told lawmakers.
Rep. Cyndi Stevenson (R-St. Johns) said she was shocked to learn that white males take their own lives at the highest rate by gender and race; black females have the lowest suicide rate.
"I was totally stunned, and most of the people I've talked to have been stunned, (that it) was white male non-veterans," Stevenson said. "That was the case in my community. I've heard a lot about the veterans, but it's an invisible epidemic in the other population as well. So if there's any help you can give me – I think it's an awareness issue."
Kim Gryglewicz of the University of Central Florida conducts research on suicide prevention. She said most state prevention efforts involve training adult "gatekeepers" to identify suicide warning signs and to respond. Florida has trained more than 16,000 adult gatekeepers and 1,700 high school and college peer gatekeepers. But Gryglewicz says the state faces limited buy-in from agencies and schools and a lack of input from people actually using the services.
"We're also seeing that funding to scale up these programs is lacking," she said. "All of the programs that we've implemented in the state thus far are more or less pilot projects, and once the federal dollars are gone, there's a limited amount of funding to scale up the programs to make it more widespread across agencies and communities."
Rodrigues said lawmakers will be guided by policy and research in improving Florida's prevention efforts.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-784-2433, or click here.