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Montana VA tapped for pilot program to expand rural healthcare

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Posted at 8:35 AM, Mar 22, 2022

HELENA — The Montana VA Healthcare System (MTVAHCS) has been selected to participate in a new pilot program aimed at expanding access to mental health care for veterans impacted by mental health conditions.

The new pilot program will deliver rural veterans’ health services through animal therapy, agritherapy, sports and recreation therapy, art therapy and more. It will be open to veterans enrolled in VA Health Care who are living with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions.

“Most of the veterans who do [die by suicide] in Montana are not connected with traditional therapy or health care, so if we can find ways using alternatives, that may connect with veterans," said Paul Harman, Associate Chief of Staff for Mental Health at VA Montana.

"Horses and animals are a way of life for most people in Montana. So, if we can try to connect them to that and find ways to help people to talk about what's going on and to address the issues so they don't have to take drastic measures," Harman continued.”

MTVAHCS has already been using programs that use animals like horses or birds of prey to help veterans heal and the new pilot program will help bring that service to more rural patients.

The pilot program — created under the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act — has been authorized for three years and can be extended by the Veterans Affairs Secretary.

It was sponsored by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester and dedicated to Ex-Navy Seal Commander John Scott Hannon who served for 23 years and eventually retired in Montana. He worked to integrate service animals into veterans’ mental health programs and worked to develop a group therapy program before dying by suicide in 2018.

“When our fighting men and women return home changed by their service, it’s on us to deliver the tools that’ll help heal the wounds of war,” said Tester. “That’s why I fought to secure this new pilot program under the Hannon Act—expanding VA’s footprint in rural states like Montana and providing more veterans access to the lifesaving mental health care they need.”

Candice Griffith, a retired Montana Army National Guard Major, who suffers from PTSD, has worked with an animal therapy program, Dog Tag Buddies. She says animal therapy is a great tool for helping veterans with invisible wounds. She notes that the ability to work alongside her service animal, Gio, has given her a newfound purpose and the ability to live a more enriched life.

“At the heart of it, I am able to now live my best life with an animal that can sense discomfort or my needs. So, I have a medical aid that goes with me wherever I go. So, it's similar to the military where you have that battle buddy,” says Griffith.