Montanans featured in upcoming Ken Burns documentary about mental illness

By: - June 20, 2022 11:21 am

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.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.