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The fight to stop veteran suicides in Montana

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Posted at 6:04 PM, Jul 04, 2023

GREAT FALLS — In Montana’s Veterans Affairs 2020 Biennial Report, 92,244 Montanans served in the United States Military. Of those 92,000, 9,000 are women and 83,000 are male, 45,000 of those veterans are 65 years of age or older. Nationwide, 40% of the veteran population is struggling with some sort of mental health issue.

“Montana in particular, it's known that Montana has a high rate of suicide,” explained Dr. Robert Connell, Associate Chief of Staff for Mental Health for Montana Veterans Affairs Division.

A major point of emphasis for the Montana Veterans Affairs Mental Health Team is to diminish the rate of completed suicides in the Treasure State.

We face the fight
Montana has a population of nearly 100,000 veterans.

“We had a spike in 2022 of veteran suicides (death by suicide) in Montana… we expect to see a continued decline over time.”

Dr. Connell says that the first way to eliminate suicide stigma in Montana is the begin talking about suicide.

“We want our healthcare providers, our friends, and our family to ask about suicide. There is a misconception out there, that if I ask someone if they’re having thoughts of suicide, that it might put the thought of suicide in their minds, and that is not true.” Dr. Connell went on to add, “If we ask about it then we can direct the individual where to get treatment for that.”

Last summer, Montana and national healthcare providers implemented a universal suicide prevention hotline, 9-8-8. The 988 Suicide Hotline is a free service to those in crisis and each certified provider on the other end is stationed at service centers throughout the state. The service is anonymous, the providers on the other line keep track of the phone numbers, take notes, and implement in a database so if there is a call from an individual in the future, their past crises are available to the specialist.

“They can then provide the information with the Montana VA, and we can provide them with the proper care they need.” Connell shared.

Face the Fight
Dial 988 for immediate crisis care. Anonymous. Compassionate. Life-saving.

In 2016, the State of Montana reported that 47,000 of the state veteran population are VA members. As Montanans are aware, health care can be few and far between in rural areas, sometimes an hour's drive to and from. With the new virtual work patients live in access to virtual healthcare has become a reality.

That’s where the USAA comes into play.

“We serve 13 million military families every single day. We help build military family resilience. We work on their financial security, and we hear from our members about how else we can help. This problem has been one they've said to us like there's something we need to lean in and go try to make a difference with,” explained President and CEO of USAA, Wayne Peacock.

Peacock has been with USAA since 1988 and was named CEO in 2020, he’s been a strong advocate for military families in more ways than one. A new collaborative effort of corporations, foundations, and non-profit and veteran-focused organizations is raising awareness of veteran suicide.

The national initiative is called, Face The Fight, founded by the USAA, in partnership with The Humana Foundation and Reach Resilience, and Endeavors Foundation, which has committed an initial $40 million dollars to the mental health initiative. The funds are going to support programs that align with public health best practices for suicide prevention and data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Face the Fight will join alongside, amplify, and complement the substantial efforts of the VA, Department of Defense, White House, and other departments.

“Through some of the work that we're doing, extend the care, through a virtual setting or through, physical, I think that can make a really big difference,” said Peacock.

When mental health becomes a problem for an individual, they tend to feel alone and lack the hope to carry on. The most important thing for someone to remember is that you’re not alone.

Face the Fight
You are not alone, veteran or not.

Andre Rush, a former Master Sergeant in the US Army, is a former White House Chef, serving during the Clinton and Trump administrations. He is a longtime advocate for veteran mental health and acknowledges that he too struggles with PTSD.

Rush is not the typical face of mental health struggles. He is a man that appears strong on the cover but remains human beneath. Large biceps and a bench press don’t outweigh the burden the mind can impose on an individual. Recognizing that even for himself, tomorrow may never come.

“It is a pandemic on an astronomical account then we must take accountability for, and it starts with us. We must take accountability for ourselves and not just think we're okay or look at a person and shun them. Because how many times have you had a call where you just say, ‘You know what, you'll be all right. Don't worry about it until tomorrow.’ Sometimes tomorrow never comes and that's one thing we’ve got to always remember.”

If you or someone is struggling with the thought of suicide, the National Crisis Hotline is available to you at no cost. Dial 9-8-8 and an operator will be with you in 90 seconds.

For more information regarding Face the Fight, visit the We Face The Fight website.

Here are some mental health services throughout North Central Montana:

Great Falls:
Voices of Hope
620 1st Ave S
Great Falls, Montana 59401

Voices of Hope is also home to the 988 services for North Central Montana.

Many Rivers Whole Health
915 1st Ave S
Great Falls, Montana 59401

Center for Mental Health
1 Main Ave S
Choteau, Montana 59425

Center for Mental Health
514 South Front Street
Conrad, Montana 59425

Center for Mental Health
312 3rd St.
Havre, Montana 59501

Hill County Mental Health Advisory Council
521 4th St.
Havre, Montana 59501

Ft. Belknap/Harlem:
One Health/Sweet/Harlem
530 Central Ave
Harlem, Montana 59626

One Health Chinook/Sweet
419 Pennsylvania St #9726
Chinook, Montana 59523

Mental Health Center
1009 6th Ave N #1
Glasgow, Montana 59230

Northern Winds Recovery Center
138 East Boundary Street
Browning, Montana 59417

Center for Mental Health
640 Park Ave
Shelby, Montana