Advocates launch “Military Strong” campaign to educate Lewis & Clark County organizations

Posted at 7:12 PM, May 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-24 21:12:00-04

(HELENA) Local suicide-prevention advocates are challenging Lewis and Clark County businesses and organizations to do more to support service members, veterans and their families.

The Lewis and Clark Suicide Prevention Coalition and the Helena Mayor’s Challenge team are partnering for the Military Strong campaign, aimed at breaking down the “military-civilian divide.”

From Memorial Day through Veterans Day, leaders are asking groups to sign up for an online Veteran Ready training course, provided through the PsychArmor Institute. There are trainings available for businesses and for nonprofits.

Once at least half of an organization’s staff finishes the hour-long training, the organization will be certified “Veteran Ready.” They will receive a Military Strong badge they can show in their window.

“They’ll put that on their window, and then service members, veterans and their families will know to go to those organizations, because they know that they support the military,” said Jess Hegstrom, suicide prevention coordinator with Lewis and Clark Public Health.

Leaders say it’s important for those who work with service members and their families or are in a position to hire them to understand that the military comes with its own culture and values.

“Military language is different,” said Lewis and Clark Public Health director Drenda Niemann, who is a service member herself. “If agencies and employers and community partners understand that there is a specific military language, they can be more sensitive to that when they’re interacting with individuals that have served.”

Nearly 20 veterans, active-duty service members and reservists die by suicide every day nationwide, and more than 50 die by suicide each year in Montana. Hegstrom said increasing support for returning service members could help address some of the risk factors for suicide.

“We just want to do everything we can to support them and limit reasons why someone might consider suicide,” she said. “We know that, while suicide is very complex, and there’s more often a mental health challenge at play, there’s also triggers. Those triggers could be losing a job, not being able to keep a job, financial issues, the relationships with your family.”

Hegstrom said service members and family members may both face challenges in finding work. Service members may not have the job-search skills others would have, and their families frequently have to move.

Niemann said educating people about the military community will make a real impact in helping them get the support they need.

“As a community, really focusing and committing an effort to not only understand that population better, but a show of support to that population, so that they feel our community’s arms wrap around them during those times of real transition and challenge,” she said.

Lewis and Clark Public Health was the first local organization to go through the Veteran Ready training. Niemann said they have challenged Lewis and Clark County, PureView Health Center, the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area and Center for Mental Health to take it on next.

If you are interested in signing up for the Veteran Ready training, you can find more information at the Lewis and Clark Suicide Prevention Coalition’s website.

The Military Strong campaign is one of the major initiatives for the local Mayor’s Challenge team. Helena was one of just eight cities selected in that national suicide prevention effort. The Mayor’s Challenge has also worked on improving veterans’ resources available through the Montana 211 system, updating local crisis response services and expanding availability of peer-to-peer support.

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-TALK, or 1 (800) 273-8255. You can press one to reach the Veterans Crisis Line, with specific resources for veterans.