September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 6,000 American veterans took their own lives in 2020.

The VA is teaming up with organizations across the country to help connect veterans who may be struggling with resources. In Syracuse, there is an effort to encourage veterans in need of help to get it in part by reminding them that they aren’t alone.

Donovan Garcia is communications coordinator for Clear Path for Veterans. He’s an Air Force and Marine Corps veteran and has also worked as a peer mentor for veterans struggling with mental health. He’s participating in what’s known as “SPED Talk,” an opportunity for veterans and their families to explore resources like those offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs at Syracuse University and other organizations.

“Making it normalized is probably the biggest thing,” he said. “You don’t have to talk about it right now, but just knowing that we’re here to talk about anything with you is what we need to keep embarking on together.”

Garcia says he has struggled with mental health, but he doesn’t like to focus on the past. Instead, he keeps his mind on using his own experience to guide veterans who may be struggling.

In 2020, 6,146 veterans died by suicide according to the VA, but suicides decreased by 9.7% between 2018 and 2020 after increasing every year since 2001. Garcia wants to keep that trend going.

“Not walking in someone’s shoes, but walking in their boots,” he said. “You’ve been there, you understand and you’ve navigated certain things, and just because you’ve been in crisis yourself doesn’t mean you can’t help someone who is.”

That sense of community, he says, is key. It’s part of why retired NFL player and veteran AleJandro Villanueva is here speaking to the group.

Whether it’s Villanueva, one of the other speakers, or a conversation with a peer mentor, Garcia says the most important thing is getting people talking.

“Not talking about it isn’t a solution for it,” he said. “Eventually having that discussion with a peer and having a discussion with your family and opening up about things can actually assuage a lot of that. It’s really healthy and constructive.”

According to the VA, there were 343 fewer veterans who died from suicide in 2020 than in 2019, and 2020 had the lowest number of veteran suicides since 2006.