3 Montanans Featured in Ken Burns Documentary on Youth Mental Illness | health and fitness

Across the vast rural miles of Montana where the “cowboy up” culture persists, so does mental illness, even if no one talks about it. It’s a fact that fascinates 14-year-old Maclayn Clark, who has struggled with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts since he was in second grade.

“(Mental illness) happens everywhere. It happens at all ages and it happens everywhere on earth. It’s not like it happens in big cities,” Clark said.

Miles City resident Gabe Peaslee, 16, speaks from experience when he says his eastern Montana home has few therapists who could provide the level of support he needed in his darkest hour. For years, his family has pledged to travel nearly 300 miles to Billings and back each week to get the skilled care he needs.

The two boys from Montana grew up battling mental illness, a state where teen suicide rates occur at twice the national average. After years of work, the two have made the decision to share their stories with the world through a production by Ken Burns called “Hiding In Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness” which will premiere at the Alberta Bair Theater on the 27th and 28th. June.

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Their therapist, Kee Dunning, also appears throughout the documentary as an expert voice on youth mental illness, a crisis that has been declared a national emergency in October 2021 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

As the pandemic has unleashed a menagerie of stress and anxiety around the world, emergency services have seen a substantial increase in mental health emergencies and demand for counselors has exploded.

The two-part documentary features an unusually candid discussion of mental illness among young Americans and includes 23 voices from people tormented by mental illness. The subjects range in age from 11 to 27, with Clark being the youngest subject, reflecting on his experience at just 11 years old. Peaslee was 13 years old.

With Montana ranking in the top five for suicide in the nation for 30 years, it’s no surprise that filmmakers Erik and Christopher Loren Ewers focused on Montana.

The Peaslee family and the Clark family have been patients of Dunning for years and continue to see her regularly. When talking about their progress and their participation in the film, Dunning broke down in tears within minutes.

“People don’t understand what they’ve been through…Now when I watch this on film, that’s what it gets to me, the magnitude of it,” Dunning said, pointing to the tears in his eyes. eyes. “It’s going to change people’s lives.”

Therapist Kee Dunning is shown at her office in Billings.

LARRY MAYER, Billings Gazette

The Peaslees

There are still days when Gabe Peaslee gets angry. Although he no longer manifests as throwing objects across the room, breaking things, or punching, managing his sanity in eastern Montana continues to be a daily struggle for him and his family.

The Peaslee Residence is tucked away in the corner of a neighborhood in Miles City. Its red paint and white trim looks fresh on a green lawn where two dogs happily wag their tails at passers-by. It’s a cozy middle-class home, and residents have endured the turmoil of mental illness in a place notorious for its lack of services.

Gabe was almost 2 years old when he went to live with his adoptive parents, Darla and Ray Peaslee, who had two biological children about a decade before adopting Gabe and his sister. Although Gabe was taken from a bad situation at first, during his first months of life he suffered tremendous trauma.

Even now, he can recall hazy memories of staying with his biological mother, enduring neglect and physical abuse. And as he grew, his anger grew.

Gabe Peaslee

Gabe Peaslee is pictured in the living room of his parents’ home in Miles City on May 27.


“One bad day when he was young, I was the one physically holding him down. Wrap him up, hold him down so he doesn’t hurt himself, he doesn’t hurt anyone else,” Ray Peaslee said.

Once, a fit of anger sent Gabe ripping books off a shelf and throwing them across the room while he was home alone with his older sister. Not knowing what else to do, his sister threatened to call the cops, even dialing 911 before Gabe collapsed in bed, exhausted with emotion.

He was committed to two institutions as his mental illness became more than his parents could bear. At the first facility, specialists worked with him to provide the care he never received as a child. The therapy had an impact, but within a month of returning home he had resorted to his old ways.

Children hospitalized for mental health problems in rural settings have been found to have a shorter stay and higher risk of readmission than children admitted to facilities in metropolitan areas. A study suggests that readmission is linked to a lack of quality mental health care providers both in the patient’s community and in the rural hospital.

Montana has been designated a mental health care shortage area for years, in part because of the rural miles that stretch between urban areas. Recent data from Kaiser Family Foundation says the state is only meeting 25% of its needs for mental health professionals, and it needs 68 more counselors to meet demand.

Gabe’s parents contacted the handful of therapists in Miles City and spent hours on the phone trying to access services for their son. He ended up on a plethora of drugs, some with negative side effects.

“It was like we didn’t know how to be parents anymore,” Ray said.

Gabe Peaslee

Gabe Peaslee is pictured with his parents in their living room of their home in Miles City on Friday May 27.


When they finally found Dunning, who specializes in family therapy, Ray and Darla had their first experiences with mental health counselors.

“We have to learn to have these really critical conversations that are very difficult…so it’s a safe place to learn, so hopefully when they go out into the wild,” Dunning said in his Billings office. .

But family therapy is hard to come by, with few therapists willing to take on “the rodeo,” Dunning said. For new patients, Dunning’s waiting list is about six months, even with about 10 families a day.

“Listening and validation are the most powerful tools you’ll ever have…everyone wants to be heard. Kids want to be seen,” Dunning said. “Everyone needs a purpose, a place to belong.”

The Clarks

When Maclayn Clark was in third grade, he started asking his parents some baffling questions.

“He was always saying things like ‘I don’t think I should be here because I don’t know what my purpose is’,” said Joe Clark, Maclayn’s father.

This indicated that Maclayn was contemplating suicide, but his parents did not recognize the signs.

maclayn clark

The Clark family from left, Maclayn, Camryn, Mary, Joe and Quinn, pose for a photo recently at their home in West Billings.

MIKE CLARK, Billings Gazette

Joe and Mary Clark grew up in Montana where mental illness was stigmatized. Emotions weren’t discussed and mental illness wasn’t something you took medication for, they said.

They were in the dark when it came to Maclayn’s struggles with anxiety and depression, and suicide was a never-discussed topic. Until the school counselor determined that Maclayn had to go to the emergency room. At the time, Maclayn was only 10 years old.

It’s been five years since the trio began family therapy with Dunning, and while all of them have come a long way, they’re still ongoing.

“It’s not just one and done. It really needs to be very clear, because our insurance companies…these people think a person should only have a limited number of sessions,” Dunning said. “I understand it’s expensive, but so are ER visits. Or out-of-home placements.

Maclayn grew up in the Catholic Church and attended Catholic schools most of her life. He and his parents always knew he was gay.

In the past, the juxtaposition of the two identities has been a triggering factor for her anxiety and depression. But Maclayn clarified that he does not have a mental illness because he is gay. His sexuality is just part of who he is, just like being Catholic is also part of him.

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” Maclayn said.

maclayn clark

Maclayn Clark pets a miniature pig while feeding his family’s pets at his home west of Billings on Thursday. “Animals are kind of my therapy,” Clark said, “they kind of give a sense of comfort.”

MIKE CLARK, Billings Gazette

The film

Dunning raised funds to ensure that tickets for the premiere were free to the public.

And soon, she hopes to attend a visit to the White House to ask for more funding for mental illness awareness and funding to expand services.

“(The film) sheds light on a truly invisible and unwanted subject. It gives an opportunity to hope for greater respect for all and the ability to love everyone,” Dunning said. “My hope is that people see that kids are resilient, kids are strong, but kids… they can’t take a lot. And it’s up to us as adults to see people differently.

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