On average across the nation, 20 veterans die by suicide each day.
One out of every 10 Montanans has answered the call to serve in the military, each with their own unique story of service and experience, and some with invisible wounds.
"Veterans have a unique experience in that they are exposed to dangers that potentially increase their risk of mental illness if treatment isn't sought, and then increase their risk for suicide. Add that to the culture of don't tell anyone when you're feeling mentally ill or don't share, and there's this really silent struggle that our veterans deal with," explained Juliana hallows, Montana VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator.
In a recently released report conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Montana ranks first in the nation among veterans who have died by suicide. Specifically examining veteran suicide deaths in 2014, the report indicates 58 Montana veterans died by suicide. Veterans ages 35 to 54 made up the largest percentage of those who died by suicide, followed closely by those ages 55 to 74. Compared to the rest of the country, after accounting for difference in age, the report found the veteran suicide rate in Montana to be significantly higher than the national rate. Under the Big Sky, where Montana has for decades ranked in the top states in the country for suicide rates, veteran deaths by suicide made up roughly 24% of suicide deaths in the state. The rate for veterans is more than double that for the entire population.
"The different triggers from different wars are what impact the combat veterans the most because that particular trigger puts them right back into self-preservation mode and they're going to react without thinking and many times that action is perceived in a negative light by someone who can't relate to what they're going through. Consequently, many veterans deal with the stigma of mental health in a negative way and they feel that they have to isolate and just hold back their emotions and things and that's when tragedies occur, when they try to make that kind of emotional pain go away," said Joe Parsetich, veteran and DAV National 4th Jr. Vice Commander.
According to the Montana VA, veterans are more likely to attempt suicide by firearm, and 85% to 90% of those who attempt suicide by firearm will die. Of the 58 veterans who died by suicide in 2014, nearly 64% involved a firearm.
"Our Montanans love their firearms, but when you're in a fragile mental state that firearm can become a dangerous thing to you," said Hallows.
Resources are available across the state, and places like the VA are working to ramp up suicide prevention efforts, with programs like "Coaching for Care" and the "Reach Vet" program. The VA also has a veterans crisis line that received 453 calls between October 2016 and September 2017. Hallows said the crisis line provides life saving measures. She described one call to the crisis line that saved a veteran's life.
"Very distressed, a lot of things going on in his life, very suicidal. So we completed what's called a safety plan, which is shown to significantly reduce your risk for suicide," said Hallows.
Both Hallows and Parsetich urge family and friends of veterans to watch for warning signs in their loved one, such as behavior changes, a loss of interest in activities or not wanting to interact in social circles. They say that often times family and friends will be the ones to notice changes first, and point the veteran to help. Parsetich said loved ones can encourage their veteran by directing them to seek counsel and help from the Vet Venter in Great Falls, for example. Hallows said getting connected and enrolled in care can help.
"What we know is when we get our veterans enrolled and into care, we help reduce that risk of suicide through our programming."
Those struggling are not alone, treatment and help is available and recovery is possible.
"There is a fear there, related to if I talk about it, shame. Something will be there. We really to as a state say no, it's OK, it’s OK to be depressed, it's OK to feel broken, it's OK to have these demons and it's even more OK to talk about it," said Hallows.
"It's not a hopeless situation. When they come back from a horrific situation, that's perfectly normal feeling that your world has been turned upside down. You have a lot of value, don't write yourself off, because so many people can benefit from your experiences by you opening up to them and in turn it's going to help you, but helping you process what you've been exposed to," said Parsetich.
#BeThere campaign info: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/BeThere.aspx
Spread the Word ideas: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/BeThereSupport.aspx
Resources for Veterans: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/BeThereVeterans.aspx
If you are in crisis and want help, call the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime at 1-800-273-TALK or text “MT” to 741741