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U.S. veterans

The suicide statistics are staggering in Montana. Our state has the highest suicide rate in the nation. Folks in Montana are twice as likely to die by suicide than the general U.S. population. The incidence of suicide among Montana veterans is even worse.

More than 50 Montanans who are veterans die by suicide every year. Even though Montana has nearly the highest proportion of veterans in our population of any state, the vast majority of us Montanans aren't veterans. We don't have many large military installations in Montana, so many (if not most) of us civilians know little about the military life and culture. This ignorance matters. Veterans, especially National Guard and Reserves members, may return after deployments to hometowns where there are few other people who understand what they have experienced in military service.

Many factors result in the high rate of U.S. veteran suicide. Mental health professionals are crucial to effective treatment of disorders related to suicide and attempted suicide. However, friends, family, coworkers and neighbors also can help.

The first steps are understanding veterans have a perspective shaped by their military experience and that they may have significant difficulty asking for help.

This is why the Billings Mayor's Challenge to Prevent Suicide is recruiting businesses and organizations to raise their awareness of military culture. The request is simple: Commit to training your employees or members with four short videos totaling one hour of viewing. The videos were produced by a nonprofit organization called PsychArmour with information from mental health professionals experienced in treating veterans.

The online course covers four topics: "15 Things Veterans Want You to Know, communication skills with veterans, Helping others Hold On and "How to Talk to Someone with a Disability."

This PsychArmor training course has been used many times all over the country, accord to Claire Oakley, who leads prevention projects at RiverStone Health and serves on the Billings Mayor's Challenge team. The Billings project is a bit different and is testing the course as a group activity. In previous efforts, individuals were asked to register and sign onto a website and take the course alone.

The Billings team is asking employers and other leaders to schedule the videos for viewing by a group. The videos may be shown during human resource training, for example, or at meetings that routinely gather large numbers of employees.

Schools, businesses and other organizations that train at least 30 percent of their members or staff will be certified as having completed the community challenge to support military families. RiverStone, the city of Billings, Dog Tag Buddies and United Way of Yellowstone County are among the first local organizations to be certified.

The Billings coalition has challenged all Yellowstone County organizations to become certified by Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Participation actually is open to all Montana groups, so regardless of whether your business is in Billings, Glendive or Missoula, you are invited to participate.

The training is simple, takes an hour and is provided at no charge.

Billings is one of eight U.S. cities selected last year for a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs to participate in the Mayor's Challenge. Helena also received a grant.

At a state suicide prevention conference in Helena last month, more than 450 health care providers gathered to discuss progress in reaching out to at-risk veterans. Calls to Montana veterans crisis line doubled between 2014 and 2018, and for the first time in years, the number of suicides didn't increase in 2018. Despite those hopeful changes, there is much more work to do to keep Montana veterans safe, to help these wounded warriors get the help they need to survive and thrive in their return to civilian life.

It's estimated that 20 U.S. veterans die by suicide each day; 50 die each year in Montana alone. The statistics cannot be ignored. Each on of us must respond, if only to know our veteran neighbors a little better, to be comfortable starting a positive, supportive conversation with veterans. 

Although the goal is veterans suicide prevention, Oakley expects additional positive results. Increasing awareness of the concerns of veterans, military members and their families benefits the entire community, she said.

"The military has its own language, command structure and values, which can seem baffling to civilians. Once service members leave the military, they may face unique challenges adjusting to civilian life and jobs, challenges that can be eased by civilians who want to help."

Want to help? Register your business  at https://www.psycharmor.org/billing or ask your employer to schedule "Veteran Ready" training.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.