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Billings Mayor Bill Cole

Cole

Montana civic and health care leaders have united to reduce veteran suicides by connecting with veterans where they are.

Led by Mayor’s Challenge teams in Billings and Helena, a coalition of public and private nonprofit organizations in these two cities are working to prevent suicides among service members, veterans and their families.

The newest prevention tool is now under development, thanks to a $221,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA awarded a 12-month contract to the United Way of Yellowstone County, which will coordinate the work of United Way of Lewis & Clark County and Voices of Hope in Great Falls. Voices of Hope operates a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline as well as a 211 Call Center that maintains a data base of community services for a region that includes Helena.

The Billings area isn’t yet served by a 211 Call Center, but the VA grant is expected to change that soon. By year’s end, the 211 phone line should be operating for callers to get information on a wide range of community services, such as mental health, housing, food, children and families, legal services, self-help groups and addiction treatment. Kristin Lundgren, impact director for United Way of Yellowstone County, said the phone line will be publicized after it has been tested to assure that it can handle large call volumes.

Meanwhile, the Montana 211 Call Centers also have a website — montana211.org — that provides all the database information in a user-friendly format. Users can quickly see what services are available in their Montana city, including Billings and Eastern Montana towns.

Lundgren asked for the public’s help in improving the 211 website. “If you see something that is wrong or that something is not there, let us know,” she said. To leave a message, click on “contact” in the top-of-page bar at montana211.org and a comment form will pop up.

“Suicide is a public health crisis,” Billings Mayor Bill Cole said Friday at a press conference announcing the prevention project. Cole’s statement is confirmed by grim statistics:

  • Montana has long had the highest suicide rate in the nation for the general population.
  • The rate of suicide among Montana veterans was twice the rate of non-veterans in our state from 2013 to 2016, according to a report in January 2018 from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Service.
  • Montanans lack of access to health care and mental health services, especially in rural areas.
  • Firearms were involved in nearly two-thirds of Montana veteran suicides, according to a 2016 VA study. Montana veterans were more likely to use guns in suicide than veterans in the rest of the nation.

Most of us rely on the internet as a daily information source. The Mayor’s Challenge will enhance that information resource for veteran and military families, starting with pilot projects in Billings and Helena. The pilots are designed as a step toward better serving veterans statewide.

Collaborative projects are typically harder to get off the ground. When many organizations are part of the planning, the job can get complicated. But strong, positive collaborations are the best for building community, stretching limited resources and creating a foundation for future successes.

Kudos to Mayor Bill Cole, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, the VA and community leaders who teamed up to reduce the toll of suicide among Montana veterans.

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