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Finding their own remedy: Veterans navigate a lack of mental health resources

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Finding their own remedy: Veterans navigate a lack of mental health resources

Mar 03, 2024 | 12:15 pm ET
By Maura Lynch
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Finding their own remedy: Veterans navigate a lack of mental health resources
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Photo illustration by Getty Images.

After making sure there isn’t an immediate threat, he attempts to locate a back door to the restaurant that could serve as an entry point for dangerous people or an escape route in the case of trouble. Murray always tries to get seated at a table facing the front door to continue observing everything in the room as he dines.

Murray spent 28 years in the Army National Guard before he became one of more than 78,000 veterans living in Montana. According to a biennial report from the Montana Veterans Affairs released in 2022, veterans make up nearly 9% of the state’s adult population.

Some veterans, like 44-year-old Murray, are accustomed to constantly being in danger, so staying one step ahead of any potential threat is how they’re wired and is something veterans continue to do after they get out of the military.

 

About this series

During February and March, the Daily Montanan is collaborating with students at the University of Montana to present the School of Journalism’s work on the topic of mental health in Montana. Each Sunday, the Daily Montanan will spotlight one of the stories that was featured in Byline magazine, which showcases the work of UM journalists and photojournalists. The entire series with complete photos can be found here.

Students in the University of Montana School of Journalism produce a magazine every other year as part of their capstone experience. 

Please note that several of the stories contain potentially triggering material. Don’t be reluctant to seek help if you or someone you know is in danger. Call or text the mental health crisis line at 988 or reach out to local resources to get the help you need.

Murray lives in Billings,g iving him relatively easy access to a handful of mental health resources. However, veterans across Montana struggle to connect and don’t always take advantage of the care that’s offered.

So, instead of reaching out to someone, veterans will often find their own outlets to help them cope. For Williamson, that outlet was alcohol. While he was in the service, Williamson said he drank “hard and heavy” to help him process his experience.

He began having thoughts of suicide.

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 53 Montana veterans died by suicide in 2019. The report stated this number was significantly higher than both the veteran and general population suicide rates nationwide.

The VA serves Montana veterans and connects them to health care. Erick Kahila, a case manager at the Missoula office, agreed there aren’t enough resources for veterans in Montana to get the mental health assistance they need. But he said the VA is doing what it can.

An app called “VA: Health and Benefits” allows veterans to securely access and manage their VA benefits and services. The department promotes community events like VetsGiving and encourages veterans to join organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Veterans.

However, the way veterans across Montana view the VA varies. For Murray, the office in Billings has been helpful and quick to get him care. However, he acknowledged that there are some problems with the system.

Kahila admits the VA is short-staffed, and there is sometimes a struggle to meet urgent needs.

That means veterans not in immediate crisis will have to wait longer before seeing a provider. In those cases the VA urges them to use other programs while they’re waiting to receive services.

One of these programs is the Community Care Network. This initiative allows veterans to access other providers near them when the VA can’t provide for care they need.

For veterans to qualify for this program, they need to meet specific eligibility requirements like having a need their local VA can’t meet or living a certain distance from VA services.

Williamson received help through the Community Care Network, but still struggled with his mental health. Then he stumbled across a program called Canine Companions. After going through the tedious process of adopting a trained service dog, he started to regain hope.

“A month before I met my dog, I had all but given up. I had thoughts of suicide and had already made plans on how I was going to do it,” Williamson said.

Williamson’s Labrador Retriever, Waimea, had her paws on his lap as he sat at a desk in his home. Williamson said that after he got her, his nightmares started decreasing and he started struggling less with anxiety and depression.

Most Montana veterans agree there are not enough mental health resources despite the state’s best efforts.

Williamson said asking for help and then putting in the work was the most beneficial thing he did. Williamson urges other veterans to reach out to someone if they’re struggling, despite the lack of resources available to them across Montana.