Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness

by Ryan Zinke
| September 21, 2023 12:00 AM

Montana faces a mental health epidemic. All our families have been touched by this crisis in one way or another. Tragically, many of Montana’s mentally unwell end up in prison or end their own lives rather than get the help they need and deserve. In fact, our suicide rate is second in the nation.

It is a crisis that demands our immediate attention, compassion, and action. September is Suicide Awareness Month, and I feel it is my duty to speak as your congressman, as a Montanan and a combat veteran about an issue that strikes at the core of our state and nation - veteran suicide.

Unfortunately, within the veteran community, the mental health crisis is even worse: Nearly 20 veterans end their lives every day. That should shock and shame every one of us who expect the federal government to uphold the promise we made to our servicemen and women.

The memories and scars of the battles we fought overseas, whether in the deserts of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan, or the jungles of Vietnam, come home with us. I’ve laced up my boots, I’ve served on the front lines, and I’ve fought hard battles both in and out of uniform. I’ve spent 23 years fighting alongside these warriors, and now in Congress it is my job to fight FOR them.

While some wounds of war are visible, the ones you can’t see can be even more painful. The unseen scars of war—trauma, moral injuries, and the haunting memories—persist long after the uniform is retired. It is a struggle that veterans understand all too well.

Earlier this year Senator Steve Daines and I introduced the bipartisan, bi-cameral “Protecting Veteran Community Care Act.” This legislation forces the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to make good on their requirement to provide access to community care – particularly for mental health.

The bill does four things:

• Gives residential mental health care the same Community Care status as other specialties for veterans requiring priority admission (within 72 hours) without having to wait longer for a VA option when Community Care is available sooner.

• Restricts the VA subverting Community Care access standards.

• Requires the VA to track and provide a yearly update to Congress on how many Community Care eligibility decisions have been made.

• Requires that modifications to Community Care access standards cannot be made by the VA without passage of a joint resolution of Congress.

Unfortunately, Congressional efforts alone cannot bring some of our veterans back to health. It will take all of us working together to fix our mental health crisis. I commend Governor Gianforte’s focus and the legislature’s historic investment in mental health services. As Montanans and neighbors, it’s our responsibility to foster a culture of compassion, understanding, and empathy. We need to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues and make it clear that seeking help is NOT a sign of weakness.

To my brothers and sisters who are struggling, I implore you to reach out. You are not alone in this war; this battle is not lost. Call the Veterans Crisis Line, reachable by dialing 988. It provides immediate and confidential support to veterans in crisis. To each of us who have served and know a buddy struggling, give them a call. Sometimes just knowing one isn’t alone or has folks who care can make the difference.

Our nation’s motto, “In God We Trust,” reminds each of us that an enduring faith has carried previous generations through the most challenging times in history.

Together, as an American family, let us ensure that our veterans receive the care, compassion, and support they need to find serenity and a renewed sense of purpose.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, lives in Whitefish.

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