“Let’s Talk Billings: Opening up About Teen Suicide and Mental Health Issues”
By Eddie Gregg
(republished from the Billings Gazette, September 5, 2013)
Like so many people in Montana, 18-year-old Sarah Mosdal has known someone who committed suicide. Her brush with the tragedy came at an early age. Mosdal said when she was in middle school in Miles City, a girl on her basketball team killed herself.
“A couple of months later, one of the teacher’s kids committed suicide,” she said. “There were a lot of other kids that were going to (commit suicide), and they told their friends that they were going to, and nobody really believed them or got them help.”
Now she and a handful of other teens from Miles City are speaking out in hopes of preventing suicide and helping other teens understand that talking about mental illness is “not just some taboo.”
The students are part of “Let’s Talk Miles City,” through which they’ve transformed their personal experiences with depression and suicide into stage performances.
Last summer, with the help of theater director Miriam Veltman, a graduate of MSU Billings, the students wrote and starred in their performances. They have since been performed in schools across Eastern Montana.
“I think that going in and talking to schools, talking to students and helping them understand facts and myths is really helping them not be so afraid of it,” Mosdal said.
The project was made possible by the Miles City-based Global Health Equity Foundation in partnership with MSU Billings. Together, they’re launching a similar effort, “Let’s Talk Billings,” this fall. Organizers are putting together three theater workshops for young people and hope to have theater productions lined up by the end of the fall.
On Thursday, Mosdal and her fellow students were at MSU Billings to screen a documentary film about their project as part of the launch of “Let’s Talk Billings.”
During the event, acclaimed Macedonian performance artist Igor Josifov painted a portrait, part of his “Purification” series, as Terry Smith, a therapist and social worker at Billings Clinic talked about mental health issues and the stigma attached to them.
Josifov, who finished the painting in less than an hour, is donating the piece and some of his other works to be auctioned off to raise money for “Let’s Talk Billings.”
Mental illness and depression are “very real, life-threatening” conditions, Smith told the audience. “With adequate assessment and treatment you can interrupt it, but without that adequate assessment, without that adequate treatment – depression is lethal.”
In Montana, many people have the “cowboy-up mentality,” said Matthew Eisen, director of “Let’s Talk Mile City” and “Let’s Talk Billings.” “If you hurt, walk it off. That may work for physical ailments, but when it comes to emotional pain, that is not effective.”
That’s where Let’s Talk comes in.
“The idea is to really tackle this issue of mental health, and specifically this project is focusing on teens,” he said.
The key to the projects is that after each theater performance in a school, the students participate in a question and answer session on depression, suicide and other mental health problems with the audience, Eisen said.
“And this is giving the audience, kids in these schools, an opportunity to ask questions in a comfortable environment and not be embarrassed to ask questions about themselves, a friend (or) a family member,” Eisen said.
Mosdal said being able to talk about these issues makes a huge difference.
“Friends really can save people’s lives,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe … the little push you can give that will really help somebody.”