Local training aims to help curb veteran suicides

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Doug Gilbertson, treasurer for the Veterans Coalition of Northwest Montana, carefully unveiled a bright white banner bearing the organization’s simple, yet weighted motto: Face to Face, Shoulder to Shoulder, Back to Back.

“And that’s just the start of it,” Gilbertson said.

The banner was mounted on a wall in a conference room in Kalispell Tuesday morning in preparation for a day-long collaborative training event aimed at providing others with the means to help prevent suicide among veterans and others. The coalition, an organization that serves multiple needs of military veterans and their families, teamed up with officials from the QPR Institute, which trains people to independently recognize warning signs, clues, and suicidal communications of people in trouble, and act accordingly.

Leading the session was Roger Pipkins, a master trainer for the QPR Institute.

“Suicide has no respect for anyone. There is no socioeconomic group that is unaffected,” Pipkins said. “We do know this: the problem isn’t going away, is it? So we need to move it up the line of focus.”

About two dozen people attended the training session. By the end of the day, they walked away as licensed QPR trainers, or in other words, they walked away equipped with the means to help potentially save a life.

The event started off on a somber note with Mike Shepard, president of the coalition, asking a question too many people, unfortunately, can relate to.

“How many of you have been affected by someone committing suicide?” Shepard asked.

Almost every single hand in the room shot up.

“That’s what I expected,” Shepard said. “The number we keep in our minds is 22.” That’s the number of veterans who die from suicide every day, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And it’s a number those who attended the training hope to mitigate.

According to Pipkins, the QPR Institute has trained more than 15,000 instructors in recent years, which have included law enforcement officers, firefighters, teachers, veterans and anyone else willing to learn. The training focuses on the main pillars of the QPR acronym: question a person about suicide, persuade them to get help and refer them to an appropriate source. Pipkins stressed the need for follow-up with those who may be suicidal.

“It doesn’t do any good if you save someone from drowning and then leave them in the water, does it?” Pipkins said.

One of the most important expectations from the training is that newly licensed instructors hold their own training sessions to share the tools with others.

“We need you to train others in this,” Shepard emphasized. “This is important enough that we need a cadre of people in every community to address it.”

Pipkins said this ripple effect is part of what makes the program successful, citing how for every dozen people trained, one will use knowledge learned from QPR to intervene in a suicide. He also said widespread training is especially important in more rural communities where those suffering can more easily remove themselves from society.

“We realize that people who are depressed tend to isolate, but even people that isolate need to interact with others,” Pipkins said.

One report released in 2018 by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, shows veterans accounted for one out of every five suicides in Montana from 2013 to 2016. Most of these occurred in individuals ages 60 to 69, and in rural areas as opposed to micropolitan or metropolitan parts of the state. Montana has one of the highest rates of suicide nationwide.

The issue of veteran suicide is one not lost on officials.

On Wednesday, Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, introduced the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2019 to the U.S. Senate.

The legislation aims to help reduce veteran suicides by increasing access to mental health-care resources, expanding research surrounding diagnoses and building up new programs to help battle the disease.

The bill’s introduction came shortly after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to create a new cabinet-level task force that will put together a “comprehensive public health road map” to assist with the veteran suicide crisis.

It also came just one day after Tester, also a ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called on organizations that represent veterans throughout the country to share their thoughts on how the VA can curb the high rates of veteran suicide.

“We all understand that mental health has been the signature issue for anyone coming home from war for the past 20 years,” Tester said. “In terms of the VA’s mental-health and suicide-prevention efforts, can you tell me where the VA is making the grade and where it’s missing the mark?”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, the Veterans Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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