Veterans are on the front lines of suicide prevention
Rick Morrow knew time was limited when he got the call.
A distraught woman told her pastor that her husband, a veteran in the military, was suffering from a serious mental health crisis. While the pastor was not sure if he could help, he said he knew someone who could.
With six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt, Morrow had seen the long-term effects of the war zone trauma manifest firsthand. He knew that his fellow soldiers, haunted by chronic pain and stress, were particularly prone to suicide.
After speaking with his pastor, Morrow found the young veteran sitting in a dark closet with a .45 caliber pistol in his hand.
“I broke the rules, I shouldn’t have gone,” Morrow said. “But he’s alive today.
The veteran, who lived in the woods of southern Lincoln County, suffered serious and disfiguring injuries while on duty. Not wanting to go out in public, the man only ventured outside in the dark to sit on his porch.
“Another week, 10 days, he would have killed himself,” Morrow said.
Hoping to help more ex-servicemen, Morrow began coordinating with the Northwestern Montana Veterans Coalition, a Kalispell-based group dedicated to veteran suicide prevention. Morrow worked alongside Jim Higgins, a veteran and coalition board member, who began expanding the organization in Lincoln County after joining the group about three years ago.
Higgins said he was drawn to the coalition after reading that the list of suicides among Vietnam veterans exceeded the number of names on the war memorial wall in Washington, DC With younger generations involved in a continuous series of conflicts dating back to the Gulf. War, Higgins predicted the problem would worsen.
“What we need to do is prepare the country for what I think is a suicide attack,” Higgins said.
The suicide rate among veterans is on the rise, according to the latest figures released by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The November report, which was two years behind schedule, found that 32 ex-combatants committed suicide that year per 100,000 ex-combatants across the country in 2018. The figure is up from 2017, when the suicide rate was 31.
The numbers for Montana were even more troubling. The report showed that for every 100,000 veterans in the state, 60.9 committed suicide in 2018.
Higgins said many factors combine to make Montana veterans particularly vulnerable to suicide. The state’s low population density can lead to social isolation and make it difficult to find quality mental health care. Firearms, a preferred means of suicide among veterans, are readily available. Elevations above 2,000 feet, which the AV finds correlated with an increased risk of suicide, are prevalent statewide.
Often, veterans are not the only ones affected by the trauma of their service. The high rates of divorce, suicide and abuse seen among former military personnel can strain those around them.
“When you talk about a veteran, you also mean a family of veterans,” Higgins said.
Although Higgins and Morrow are not medically trained to prevent suicides, they believe they – and anyone else – can help save lives by identifying and treating the telltale signs of suicidal depression. The system they use, known as Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR), can help anyone at risk for suicide and is supported by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The first step of the QPR system is to identify signs of suicidal intent. These range from obvious signs, such as someone declaring they intend to kill themselves, to more subtle behavioral changes, such as someone donating valuable goods and storing guns or pills.
QPR then urges anyone close to a person at risk of suicide to ask them if they are considering suicide.
“How you ask the question is less important than how you ask,” reads a PowerPoint slide from the QPR Institute.
The followers of QPR then try to persuade the person to get help and refer them to a professional counselor. Higgins stressed that the system is meant to complement clinical mental health care, not replace it.
To promote QPR in Lincoln County, Higgins regularly offers training courses lasting just over an hour. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic last year, Higgins said it was difficult to attract new interns.
Larry Farmer, a Gulf War Navy veteran who attended one of Higgins’ training sessions in March, said the pandemic has proven to be a difficult time for him and other former military personnel. of Lincoln County. With veterans already struggling with isolation, social distancing policies only exacerbate their mental health.
“My shrink tells me not to isolate and yet society is isolating me,” Farmer said during the training session.
Farmer began helping other veterans cope with mental illness about four years ago. At the time, he said options for former servicemen seeking help with post-traumatic stress disorder in Lincoln County were severely limited.
“They had just started with online treatment,” he says. “I mean there was nowhere you had to go to Spokane, or Fort Belknap to get help with PTSD and most of the people you spoke to had no experience with it. that.
Jennifer McCully, the county’s public health official, said the number of local veterans support groups remains limited. While organizers hope to create more groups, the pandemic has made it difficult for existing groups to function.
After seeing strong interest from local veterans, Mavis Vaillancourt, a clinical social worker from Libby, and Bill Foster, a veteran and Gateway Community Service advisor, are working as a support group.
Although not a veteran herself, Vaillancourt came from a family with solid military experience. She knew from talking to former servicemen that veterans increasingly seek each other’s support in dealing with recent political and social upheavals. The Vision Support Group, which Vaillancourt hopes to launch in June, would provide a space for veterans to meet and discuss with each other.
Vaillancourt was also looking to create a second group aimed at female veterans, noting that the challenges women face in the service may differ from those faced by male veterans. She planned to lead the women’s support group at least until she could find a veteran who would be willing to take a stand.
Local foreign war veterans and American Legion posts also offer assistance to veterans with mental illness. Joe Johnston, a postal services officer at the American Legion station in Libby, said his organization coordinates with two VA representatives, one who helps with suicide intervention and another who helps local veterans get health care. While Johnston said representatives were responsive, he noted that both were based in Kalispell.
At the state and federal levels, officials have recently been pushing for more resources for veterans in northwest Montana. In September, Robert Wilkie, then Secretary of Veterans Affairs of the United States, spoke to Kalispell about the need for advocacy for suicide prevention.
“This state has probably been hit harder than any other by the suicide of veterans, especially from the Vietnamese era, and it is our job to find the vets who are not seen in VA clinics and provide the services. that they need, ”Wilkie said.
The Daily Inter Lake reported that Wilkie discussed the possible expansion of the VA Medical Clinic in Kalispell. Requests for comment from the Montana VA Health Care System went unanswered.
A month after Wilkie’s speech, Congress passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), that included a $ 174 million credit to the VA secretary for 2021 to 2025. The bill The law requires the department to grant veterans one year of health care after transitioning from active duty. A grant program established by the bill allocates up to $ 750,000 to state and local organizations that provide suicide prevention services to veterans and their families.
To help fill the void, Farmer found he could help fellow veterans by building relationships with them through Troy Baptist Community Church. More than once, these relationships help her save lives.
One night, Farmer received a call from a veteran with whom he had been in contact. After answering the call, Farmer heard a gunshot.
“He missed and he didn’t answer the phone,” Farmer said. “He was either hoping that I would show up there to check, or that the police would show up to finish the job.”
Aside from the challenges of securing funding and raising awareness, groups like those run by Farmer and Higgins tend to have a hard time attracting veterans who need help the most.
“They will not go to the AV and they will not go to the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and they will not go to [American] Legion or whatever, ”Higgins said. “They just go into this extreme depression and this isolation which is a perfect mix for suicide.”
Farmer said some of his group who were in dire need of support stopped coming due to drug addiction or dishonorable dismissals. As pandemic guidelines began to loosen, Farmer said he was working to attract more veterans by organizing camping and gold digging trips and other outdoor events.
While more funding and programs will certainly help, Farmer has found that ultimately what matters in managing mental illness is making the connection.
“The most important thing is to have someone to talk to and to trust,” he said.