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BIG TIMBER, Mont. — Grace Foulk remembers the concerts her family would host on the sprawling lawn of their three-room log cabin in Montana’s Boulder Valley, lawn chairs arranged around a campfire as her father played guitar. Her dad had passed down his love of music to her; Grace would plead with him to teach her chords on the guitar when he got home from long days working at the local mine, and though he was exhausted, he taught her how to play. But darker moments from Grace’s childhood cast a shadow on her happy memories — childhood trauma that sits with her as vividly as her father’s songs. “I didn’t recognize a lot of the dysfunction that was going on at the time,” she said of those early years.
“I sometimes would have this loving, caring father. And then there were times where I didn’t. And I couldn’t understand that,” she added.
Grace’s father’s job in platinum mining often took him away from home. He struggled with bipolar disorder – though he wouldn’t be diagnosed until late in his life – and he began drinking heavily, creating stress in the family that Grace says she internalized despite her mother’s attempts to shield her and her siblings.
He had had a troubled childhood himself, surrounded by alcoholism and mental illness. It was a cycle of intergenerational trauma that he wanted to break, but couldn’t.
Foulk, now 19, said her dad felt pressure to pull himself up and “be a man,” a reflection of the stigma that he and many others have felt, and all too common in rural Montana. The state ranked among the highest in the country for excessive drinking and suicide mortality rates in 2018.
Ryan Tolleson Knee, a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Montana, said deeply ingrained cultural values of rugged individualism, privacy and “presenting as capable and tough enough to endure anything that comes our direction” are vestiges of Montana’s frontier past. “Those were absolutely essential characteristics and values to have at the turn of the [20th] century, and probably less helpful now,” Tolleson Knee said, as Montana faces an epidemic of suicides and substance abuse.
Grace was a freshman in high school when her worst fear came true: Her father died by suicide. The two had been close, joined by their love of music and the outdoors, and his death sent Grace to what she calls “the deepest, darkest place I’ve ever been.” Grace considered taking her own life – but there was a new program in the town of Big Timber that she credits with saving her life instead.
It was started by Amber Martinsen-Blake, who had recognized there was a silent crisis taking place in the community when a survey at Grace’s high school revealed 30 percent of students had thought about suicide, and 19 percent had attempted it. Martinsen-Blake saw that the stigma against seeking mental health treatment was a fatal problem in Big Timber, including among its children. She thought the solution would be a trusted, local guide to connect people discreetly with therapists and treatment.
In most of Montana’s rural counties, a school guidance counselor is the only resource for children struggling with mental health issues. But when Grace walked into the Sweet Grass County High School guidance counselor’s office and said she needed help, the counselor was able to point her to Martinsen-Blake’s new Community Health Worker program, and she in turn connected Grace with a therapist. From the very first session, Grace said, she found herself confronting issues she hadn’t even been conscious of before. She describes dealing with her trauma as organizing a filing cabinet in her head, learning how to process her emotions and memories so they become manageable. “She absolutely saved my life and she helped me find myself and to love myself. She helped me to deal with these traumas that I hadn’t been dealing with, that I didn’t even know I had.”
Grace graduated high school this year, and now is working with Martinsen-Blake’s Community Health Worker program. Grace says the stigma surrounding mental health care in Big Timber is still there, but the program is helping to normalize seeking help, especially among kids at the high school. “Because I can speak from personal experience, I feel like I have this opportunity to look at other people in the eyes who’ve gone through similar experiences as me and to tell them, you’re going to be OK,” she said. The CHW program is now connecting patients all across Montana with mental health care via telehealth — a badly needed solution to transportation and access issues in rural areas.
On a warm, fall day, Grace brought her guitar down to a creek that runs behind the log cabin where her family used to live. They moved away after her father died, but Grace comes back from time to time. Next to the creek is another small, one-room log cabin: The place where Grace’s father died. She said she is strong enough to visit this place now, a testament to the work she’s done in therapy. Now, she sits on a picnic table in front of the cabin and plays a song she wrote herself, her fingers playing the chords taught to her by her father. “Everybody in this town knows my dad, essentially, and they know him as the music man,” Grace said.” “It feels like I’m keeping him alive through the music in a lot of ways.”
And she hopes her family’s cycle of intergenerational trauma has been broken with her. “I’m hellbent on being the chain-breaker, because it’s what my dad would have wanted.”
— Leah Nagy
Learn more about Catalyst for Change, the organization supporting mental health services for rural Montanans.
If you or someone you know has talked about contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.