Montana officials explore suicide hotline for state’s vets

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) – Alarmed by the number of military veterans in Montana who take their own lives, state officials want to explore establishing a state-based suicide prevention hotline to improve access to emergency counseling among despondent veterans.

Montana has among the nation’s highest rates of suicides in the country, not only among veterans but the general population.

State officials say 50 veterans in Montana killed themselves last year, with about 560 suicides over the past 10 years.

While a national suicide hotline exists specifically for veterans, some officials say Montana-based telephone counselors could be more responsive to the needs of the state’s veterans.

State Sen. Dee Brown, who chairs the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee, has raised alarm about the suicide rate. She said the committee is just beginning to discuss how best to improve telephone counseling services for veterans.

“I’ve heard from a lot of veterans who try to call for help, and sometimes all they get is a recording telling them to call 9-1-1. The first voice they hear should be a live person,” Brown said in an interview as her committee assembled Wednesday to again address suicides.

During a session of the committee in April, Brown dialed a suicide hotline. It was answered by someone located on the East Coast, she said.

“If we don’t take care of our veterans at home, why the hell are we sending them abroad to die?” Brown asked.

Juliana Hallows, the suicide prevention coordinator at the Fort Harrison VA Medical Center, told the committee on Wednesday that hotline services already exist and have been much improved since the hotline came under fire two years ago.

Veterans’ groups had complained that previous iterations of the VA’s hotline did not connect veterans immediately with a counselor, but required callers to hang up and call another number.

While a state-based hotline would give veterans more options, Hallows said, “a Montana-specific hotline would be redundant.” She said veterans who call a national hotline will get the emergency counseling they need before being referred to a local mental health professional.

Experts say there are numerous factors that lead some veterans to kill themselves, including social isolation and limited access to mental health care.

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