JUNE 23, 2022 
MainStreetMontana.com
BY:  
DailyMontanana.com

 The Clark family of Billings, Montana. The family will be featured in an upcoming documentary series about mental illness made by Ken Burns. Mary, Maclayn and Joe Clark sit on a couch in their Billings home. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

 

Mary Clark stepped up to the desk at the Emergency Room in a Billings hospital. The receptionist asked what brought her there.

She could barely choke out the words. She was shaking and tearful.

She recalls having to tell them, she brought her elementary-age son, Maclayn, in because he wanted to kill himself.

Like most people there, the Clark family had not begun the day expecting a trip to the emergency room. But now, looking back, the moment was probably inevitable – a combination of agonizing nighttime conversations and school staff who had been persuaded that Maclayn seemed normal, happy and surrounded by friends.

That changed when a school staff member heard Maclayn say that he wanted to kill himself.

That was several years ago, and Maclayn’s mental health has improved, but his story, his mental illness and his experiences are about to be shared with the entire world – literally. He is one of two Montana people profiled in Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness.” The Clark family will be featured, along with counselor and advocate Kee Dunning of Billings. Gabe Peaslee of Miles City is also a part of the documentary.

The two-part series will air worldwide at 7 p.m., on PBS, on June 27 and June 28.

 

In addition to airing on PBS, the Billings community is holding a screening at the Alberta Bair Theatre on June 27 and 28. The event is free, but tickets must be reserved. More information can be found here.

 

 At first, sharing Maclayn’s journey through mental illness and finding help was the farthest thing the Clark family had in mind. But it was Maclayn himself who insisted if his story could help just one person like him, then he needed to tell it.

“We live in Montana and that means we didn’t want to air our dirty laundry and what we were going through,” Joe, Maclayn’s father,  said.

Mary and Joe worried about Maclayn being bullied, teased or ostracized for sharing.

“If my story can help one person, then I wanted to do it,” Maclayn said.

 

When the darkness came

Mary and Joe Clark remember those long, sleepless nights.

They began before bedtime, usually around 7 p.m.,  and lasted sometimes into the early hours of the morning. As Maclayn would wind down, his young yet old soul would start wondering and worrying. What’s my purpose? Why am I here? I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to live.

Maclayn also said the hardest words any parent would hear: That God had made a mistake by putting him on earth.

These weren’t the kind of thoughts Joe and Mary had expected from a third-grader, even one who seemed more sensitive and philosophical than most.

Mary, who works at the same school, asked counselors, staff and teachers, but they all reported a normally happy kid with lots of friends and good social interaction. The child in school didn’t seem to square up with the child at home.

The nights would become longer and more severe. Sometimes Maclayn would sleep in Mary and Joe’s room so they could keep an eye on him. Sometimes, one of them would sleep in his room. The entire family  seemed to ebb and flow with how Maclayn was doing.

And no one really seemed to have answers.

At first, Joe and Mary had resisted the idea that their son could be struggling with suicide. After all, he was only eight.

“I don’t remember getting to the ER,” Maclayn said. “I remember when I did get there, they swarmed me, put me in a gown and an isolation room.”

After getting to the emergency room, Mary felt a little relief that they’d get to see a psychiatrist and it would expedite the problem.

“He saw the fear in my eyes,” Mary said. “I don’t think he realized that if he said that he was thinking about suicide that he’d be in the hospital… As parents, we should have been more proactive about asking the question, but we kind of thought that if you asked it, you’d be putting the idea into their head.”

The trip to the ER started a new crisis of its own. Psychiatrists in a place like Montana, even in the largest city in the state, have huge waiting lists and so do many counselors. The soonest they could schedule an appointment was four months out.

That triggered the “mama bear” instinct for Mary, and she called every psychiatrist she could find, getting on the cancellation list.

They looked for counselors, too. At first, the medications didn’t seem to work, or they tried different medicines to help Maclayn.

They met with five or six therapists, never finding a fit until, in a moment of desperation, Mary called their pediatrician.

“Have you tried Kee Dunning?” the doctor asked.

 

The ‘Kee’ to success

Kee Dunning also plays large in Burns’ new documentary. A licensed therapist in Billings, Dunning worked for years as a therapist with Tumbleweed, an organization that helps at-risk and homeless youth.

Mary called Dunning to set up an appointment. The call to schedule an appointment lasted an hour-and-a-half.

“I was bawling my eyes and she instantly got us,” Mary said. “It was life-changing.”

“She saved my life,” Maclayn said.

And that’s something the family is absolutely certain of: Dunning saved Maclayn’s life and brought the family closer. During an hour-and-a-half interview with the Daily Montanan, Mary, Maclayn and Joe sat on the couch, talking about the struggles of mental illness. And Maclayn, now 14, said he tells his parents everything. Everything.

“She gave us methods and homework to try outside of counseling,” Mary said. “Most of the other counselors didn’t have any methods to use outside of counseling, it was all about the work in those moments.”

They learned to talk directly about what Maclayn was feeling – to alert friends and family if thoughts of self harm start taking root. Maclayn has a “safety tree” – a network of family and friends he can call, visit or talk to, day or night, even if his parents are not immediately available.

“I think my mindset if something goes wrong is that nothing good can come of not saying something. It’s good to talk about the day,” Maclayn said.

That has led to an uncommonly deep relationship between a teenager and his parents, but also the entire family has grown closer.

“We’ve been through so much and he knows we will fight for him,” Mary said. “We’re on his team.”

That has helped them talk more openly with family and friends, as well as becoming advocates for speaking openly about mental health.

“We really want people to know there doesn’t have to be trauma to have mental illness,” Mary said.

She said they were a two-parent household, went to church and lived comfortably. They have two other children.

“It’s opened a dialogue with people. We probably should have shared our journey before,” Mary said.

And that’s what it is, a journey. There are good days and bad days. Joe said most people want to know: Is he alright now, without understanding that mental illness isn’t something that necessarily vanishes with medication or counseling.

“It’s really important to show kids going through this because it happens in every community and every walk of life,” Maclayn said. “You can’t walk alone. You need a therapist. I need medication.”

Dunning is a dynamic mix of extreme compassion and extremely straight talk. She doesn’t mince words. And you don’t sense her sincerity, you feel it in her hug.

“I just love them. And I am going to hold their feet to the fire,” she said. “I see them. And, I feel them.”

Dunning had been contacted about doing the documentary and she thought about which, if any of her clients, could be a good example.

“I did worry, but I also knew that he was ready to do this. And this was years of work, not just with him, but with the parents, too,” Dunning said. “This didn’t just happen over night.”

She said that dealing with mental illness and mental health is not about reaching a definite point, like being free of a disease.

“That’s really what I want people to get. We’re not done. We’ve only just begun,” Dunning said. “We can say our truth and have fears. We don’t have to live in such hurt. Why should we be ashamed if we’re depressed or raped?”

She said the most common misperception often begins with parents.

“They say, ‘Fix my kid,’ and I always ask, ‘How do you know they’re broken?’ They’re little mirrors,” Dunning said.

She also believes that a documentary like Burns’ can help others understand the depths of pain, and also the critical need of having more resources.

“This is a good reminder that they’re coming forward, when there is not enough resources,” Dunning said. “Kids are asking other kids to come forward now. The people in this film are telling people that it’s OK to come forward, to tell your story, to ask for help. Now, we’d better be ready.”

 

Maclayn’s purpose

It took just one meeting with the producers and staff of the documentary to convince Joe and Mary that participating in a documentary about youth and mental illness was right for them.

“They are remarkable individuals. They didn’t want to hurt any one of the participants even to help the whole society. That made us feel good,” Joe said. “They weren’t willing to tolerate a sacrificial lamb, instead they wanted us to be part of something bigger, though.”

For a bit even Mary and Joe couldn’t help but wondering if bringing up years of counseling and some still raw memories would traumatize Maclayn or cause more anxiety. However, it’s appeared to have actually made him stronger.

Depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation haven’t just evaporated, but the family has learned together how to manage them.

“That’s still an everyday occurrence,” Joe said. “But now we have the tools and equipment. It doesn’t eliminate the heartache, but you know you’re going through this everyday and there are a lot of people just like you.”

“In my everyday life, I feel a lot better,” Maclayn said. “I’m growing. It felt powerful to know that other people are going through the exact same thing, and I want others to know there are people going through this, too. When you’re in it, you think, ‘This is going to be the rest of my life,’ but it’s good for them to see me living my life.”

Throughout this process, Maclayn has learned plenty about himself. Strangely, he’s discovered that those big questions for an 8-year-old, for example, what is purpose in life, may just have its answer in being an advocate – a literal poster child – for helping others to seek help.

He’s also found an answer to one of those other questions.

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” he said.



 

 

June 23, 2022
MainStreetMontana.com
BY: 

 Montana State Prison. Keith Schubert/Daily Montanan.

 

The staff vacancy rate at the Montana State Prison has increased from 20% in January to 30% as of Monday, and employees are being asked to bear the brunt of the shortages through upcoming mandatory 12-hour shifts, according to an internal memo sent to prison staff on Monday.

“The Montana Department of Corrections’ Executive Team would like to thank you all for your hard work, especially over the past few months as we have struggled with staffing levels at Montana State Prison,” the memo read. “Due to vacancies, light duty, extended leave and a depleted workforce throughout Montana, MSP is down 79 positions.”

The 1,600-unit men’s prison in Deer Lodge requires 328 correctional officers to be considered fully staffed. In early May, the prison was forced to close down an entire unit — a move DOC officials said would ease staffing troubles by reducing the number of mandatory posts.

 

According to the memo sent to employees by top prison officials, shifts will run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. During the first week, correctional officers are expected to work three 12-hour days and will get four days off. During the second week, they are expected to work three, 12-hour days, one, eight-hour day and will get three days off. And all correctional officers working 12-hour shifts will be compensated for four hours of overtime pay for each 12-hour shift.

Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, who works as a correctional officer at the prison, was on break at the prison during an overtime shift when reached by phone Tuesday night. “It sucks,” he said.

He said the new policy will further exacerbate the low morale at the prison, leading to more staff leaving. As for himself, he said it’s “up in the air” as to whether he quits if the policy goes into effect on July 16.

“In my opinion, with them forcing people to go to twelves, it’s not going to help the situation at all. There are some people that, you know, like the idea of working twelves, but there’s a lot of people that don’t, and it’s a change in their working conditions that management didn’t bargain for,” he said.

The prison said the memo constitutes the 14-day notice of a change in schedule required by the Local 4700 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

For Frazer, the solution is simple: treat staff better.

“If specific people in management would treat staff better, treat them like humans … make sure the staff feel valued and appreciated and heard, then people would be more inclined to volunteer their time to help out with these mandatory overtimes. And to help recruit, to get people to come out here,” he said.

Visitation will also be reduced for inmates to two days per week, effective July 2, per the memo.  “This will allow us to place correctional officers normally assigned to visitation inside the compound,” the document reads. Per the DOC website, the state prison currently offers visitation Thursday through Sunday.

In an effort to boost morale and stop the staffing hemorrhaging the prison reached an agreement with the local union earlier that included a $2 hourly raise. The department also centralized its Retention and Recruitment Committee about two months ago in an effort to more effectively recruit staff.

Employee shortages have existed for more than a decade, but prison warden Jim Salmonsen told reporters earlier this month that he has never seen anything “to this magnitude” before.



 

 Aided by federal transportation dollars, officials say 80% of park could reopen within two weeks.

Credit: Courtesy of Yellowstone National Park

That’s on top of the expected June 22 reopening of the park’s southern loop, which means 80% of the nation’s oldest national park should be open within just weeks of devastating flooding in southern Montana and in time to recoup at least some of the losses of a truncated summer tourism season.

The new estimate is a far cry from the sobering assessment Park Superintendent Cam Sholly shared shortly after the flooding began: that the northern loop of the park, which allows visitors to access Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris and other destinations, would likely not reopen this season. 

Instead, $50 million in emergency relief funds from the Federal Highway Administration and the redirection of road crews already in Yellowstone for an existing project have led the park to shift expectations, Sholly and National Park Service Director Chuck Sams III announced this weekend, according to a statement from the park. 

 

Can Gardiner survive its latest disaster?

Can Gardiner survive its latest disaster?

Nestled in the scenic Yellowstone River valley along the Montana-Wyoming border, Gardiner, Montana — with its Old West facades, fly shops, and whitewater outfitters — serves as a year-round gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Its proximity to the northern entrance to the country’s oldest and arguably grandest national park fuels the town’s tourism-based economy. With a year-round population of fewer than 900 people, Gardiner is almost entirely reliant on the nearly three-quarters of a million visitors who pass through Yellowstone’s north gate each year. The summer season, the busiest and most lucrative time of year for most Gardiner businesses, was…

The Park Service is also working with the FHWA “on a range of temporary and permanent options” to restore access to Silver Gate and Cooke City at the park’s northeast entrance. No traffic is currently allowed into the Lamar Valley en route to those gateway communities. 

“It’s about as fast as you can mobilize a plan for a new road,” Sholly told reporters, per the Billings Gazette. 

Officials were initially careful not to overpromise, Park County Commissioner Bill Berg told Montana Free Press Tuesday. 

“A lot of attention and a lot of resources and creativity are being brought to bear,” Berg said. “Any connectivity between Mammoth and Gardiner, even if limited, is more than we expected even a week ago.” 

He noted, though, that emotional and economic anxiety still grip gateway communities like Gardiner, where innkeepers, guides and other proprietors saw their peak-season reservations dry up as the rivers rose. 

“It’s gonna be a hard summer,” he said. 

 “Any connectivity between Mammoth and Gardiner, even if limited, is more than we expected even a week ago.” 

PARK COUNTY COMMISSIONER BILL BERG 

The federal transportation dollars are separate from Federal Emergency Management Agency resources already pledged to help three affected southern Montana counties: Carbon, Park and Stillwater. Last week’s federal declaration of major disaster in Montana allows the government and certain nonprofits in the state to tap into FEMA’s public assistance funds, designed to facilitate rapid repairs to public infrastructure. 

Emergency managers are on the ground this week conducting preliminary damage assessments that will determine what public assistance funds are necessary and whether to open up access to FEMA individual assistance money, which the state has yet to request, an agency spokesperson said. 

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has also expressed openness to tapping into $93 million in available business assistance funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to aid flood-affected communities, a request that Montana Democratic legislative leadership made in a letter last week. 

“We’re looking at that,” he told KULR’s Bradley Warren early Tuesday. “I think it’s a reasonable use of some of those funds.”

Gianforte also said on Twitter Tuesday that the state is gathering data in anticipation of adding Flathead County to the presidential disaster declaration. Even as the public’s attention has turned to Yellowstone and surrounding communities, the Flathead Valley has seen its share of historic flooding in the last two weeks.

Back in Park County, Berg said he’s cautiously hopeful that the weekend’s developments will provide some relief to the tourism-dependent residents and businesses in his communities this season — fitting, he said, given that summer began at 3:14 a.m. local time on June 21. 

The weather Tuesday morning was sunny and fair, he said. 

“It’s Mon-Damn-Tana.” 


 

Bill was a key focus of Montana’s Jon Tester, Kansas’ Jerry Moran

JUNE 16, 2022 12:23 PM
MainStreetMontana.com
BY: 
 
DailyMontanan.com

 Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, speaks at a press conference on legislation to provide health care for veterans exposed to burn pits on June 7, 2022 (Photo by Jennifer Shutt of States Newsroom).

 
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