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The Mayor's Conference

From left, Billings City Council member Mike Yakawich, Mayor Bill Cole and Claire Oakley sit at Rock Creek Coffee Roasters following the Mayor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and their Families held last week in Washington, D.C.

After participating in a pilot training program designed to prevent suicide among veterans and their families, Claire Oakley and Mike Yakawich are ready to take on what has been labeled “a public health crisis.”

The three were joined by others from the state in a Washington, D.C., conference organized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Yakawich, a Billings City Council member, has worked for many years as part of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yellowstone County.

“Doing this kind of work, we have to have hope,” he said Wednesday. “ ... And the hope I have is seeing that we can make a connection with groups that serve the veteran community. My hope is that this collaboration will give us traction to go for zero suicides.”

Oakley is RiverStone Health’s program director for health promotion. She said that of the average of 20 American veterans who die by suicide every day, only six are connected to veterans’ services. Montana has about twice the suicide rate as the national average.

Connecting veterans to the services they’ve earned is a high priority, she said. And the presence on the local team of members like Bryan Gray, director of the Billings Vet Center, and Billings Police Lt. Dave Cardillo, an Air Force veteran, will help, she said.

Some ideas won’t require a lot of money or effort. Oakley noted that two organizations — the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Shooting Sports Foundation — have teamed up to produce a public service message on the importance of voluntary secure firearms storage.

Programs and ideas that are tailored for the Billings community will fit into a public health pyramid, Oakley explained. At the base are primary programs targeted at the general population, such as educational and support programs.

Secondary stage programs, targeted at families needing to alleviate problems and prevent escalation, are the middle layer of the pyramid.

At the top are interventions for those affected, such as peer-to-peer support for a veteran or service member in crisis. Those programs are generally more expensive and are designed for a much smaller portion of the population, she said.

Later this spring, SAMHSA and VA employees will travel to Billings, Helena and other participating cities to help each community complete site-specific plans.

One priority for both the Billings and Helena teams, according to Oakley, is working with the Legislature to re-establish the Montana Suicide Mortality Review Team.

A VA specialist in suicide prevention has been approved for the Billings VA community-based outpatient clinic, she said, but has not yet been deployed.

Billings Mayor Bill Cole said both he and former Mayor Tom Hanel gave their support to the pilot program and training. 

“We knew sadly that Montana stands out for our terribly high rate of suicide, and veterans unfortunately are no exception,” Cole said. “We often associate the danger of military service with being in the service, but statistically, veterans have a higher rate of danger to themselves after they come home.

“We aren’t doing something right here, and there are unfilled needs,” Cole added. “It starts with information and education. We need to educate ourselves as a city and as a state and figure out what we can do about this major problem.”

“Our goal as a coalition,” Yakawich said, “is to bring service members together to be that glue.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.