Dandelion Effect Podcast - Matt Kuntz: Redefining Mental Health

Matt Kuntz: Redefining Mental Health

Matt Kuntz is the Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montana, the nation’s largest grassroots organization, supporting, educating and advocating for people with mental illnesses and their families. He is also an Army veteran, graduate of West Point Military Academy, former corporate lawyer and a father of three in Helena, MT.

Recognized by President Obama as one of 18 “Ordinary Americans Who’ve Made An Extraordinary Difference,” Matt’s legislative work in the mental health field has undoubtedly helped improve the lives of many people. He was recently appointed to serve on the Department of Veterans Affairs National Research Advisory Council, helping to sustain a national research program focused on the high-priority health care needs of veterans, and he also helped institute the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery at Montana State University, where he leads studies on Montana Youth and Veterans.

In this episode, Matt shares openly about his own struggles with suicidality and what helped him through the darkest periods of his life. We discuss the mental health research he’s involved in, the murky, but hopeful, waters of diagnosis and treatment in our current healthcare system, and the strategy he used to move from a random guy in Montana to someone who helps to pass laws through Congress.

Most importantly, we break through the stigma that’s typically associated with mental illness and talk candidly about the biological susceptibility and environmental factors that lead the human brain to function differently for each and every person.

This is a raw and open conversation, a new perspective on the complexity of the human brain and the diversity of the human experience.


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Episode Transcript

Andy Vantrease  01:03
Welcome back to another episode of The Dandelion Effect podcast. I’m your host, Andy Vantrease. And today I’m talking with Matt Kuntz. Matt Kuntz is the Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montana, the nation’s largest grassroots organization supporting, educating and advocating for people with mental illness and their families. He’s also an army veteran, a graduate of West Point Military Academy, former corporate lawyer and a father of three and Helena Montana. Recognized by President Obama as one of 18 “Ordinary Americans Who’ve Made an Extraordinary Difference,” Matt’s legislative work over the past two decades in the mental health field has undoubtedly helped improve the lives of so many people. He was recently appointed to serve on the Department of Veterans Affairs National Research Advisory Council, helping to sustain a national research program focused on the high priority health care needs of veterans. And he helped institute the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery at Montana State University in Bozeman, where he leads studies on Montana youth and veterans.

Andy Vantrease  02:06
In this episode, Matt shares openly about his own struggles with suicidality and what helped him through the darkest periods of his life. We discussed the mental health research, he’s involved in the murky but hopeful waters of diagnosis and treatment in our current healthcare system, and the strategy he used to move from some random guy in Montana, to someone who helps pass laws through Congress. Those are his own words, not mine.

Andy Vantrease  02:31
Most importantly, though, we break through the stigma that’s typically associated with mental illness and talk candidly about the biological susceptibility, and environmental factors that lead the human brain to function differently for each and every person.

Andy Vantrease  02:45
This is a very raw and open conversation. And I hope it gives you a new perspective on the complexity of the human brain, and the diversity of the human experience. Please share this with anyone who may be struggling, going through hard times, or know someone who’s going through hard times. This is an important conversation to shift the paradigm of how we think about mental health, and the entire spectrum that we use to even talk about these experiences in our lives. So without further ado, please help me welcome Matt Kuntz to the podcast.

Andy Vantrease  03:21
From my outside perspective, looking in on all of the things and all of the different versions of Matt Kuntz that there has been, you have such a rich wellspring of experiences. And it really seems like your personal life has guided you toward the work that you do today. So I’m curious of where this journey of working in mental health and being such a passionate advocate, what are some of those pivotal moments that led you to the work that you do today?

Matt Kuntz  03:54
I guess that it started when I was a freshman in high school, or sophomore around there, and my friend Darcy, who I swam with, and we’ve been friends since forever, she developed an eating disorder and went into treatment. And, you know, I remember writing her letters every day, while she was at treatment, and just trying to put something positive, you know, her way when she was done in Arizona. And I was a 14 year old kid, not really sure what that meant, or 15 or 16, whatever it was. And I guess that was when it really kind of started. And then when she came back, it was part of what we thought about, or you know, her, her part of her journey. And then I was at West Point. The summer of my junior year, we lost her. And after all that work, and I do think that she made amazing progress. and was able to get, you know, four or five more really good years before some of the things took a hold of her. And I remember flying back to Montana for her funeral and just saying, you know, God, I will do anything else, but never mental health again. You know, this was too hard. You know, the family and friends and everybody did everything right, and we still lost her. That was really formative. I think I’m one of the few people, kind of at, where I’m at in the field that swore that they would never be in the field. So I guess that the universe laughs when we make those kind of plans or oaths.

Matt Kuntz  05:44
So to fast forward after West Point law school, was back in my hometown of Helena. And my stepbrother had returned to Montana after a really hard tour in Iraq with the Montana National Guard. And we ended up losing him to post traumatic stress, in March of 2007. I didn’t realize at the time quite what that was, you know, for us or for, we were really sad. And we were really pissed. And especially at the time, our nation, especially the National Guard didn’t have the tools that it needed. So I began asking them to change it. And eventually, I got louder and louder when nobody would. And that was part of changing my path towards working on mental health. I gave up my legal career and joined NAMI Montana a year later. And I’ve been here…

Andy Vantrease  06:04

Matt Kuntz  06:50
Yeah, it was really life changing for me. And I didn’t realize it. What I realized was that we had momentum. And the people did seem to be wanting the change that we were asking for, which at the time was in person screening for men and women when when they came home from battle. You know, and it ended up being more when we got the bill through Congress. But that was, really kind of realized that I had either better go all in on trying to make a difference in this or go back to being all in corporate law. And there was no choosing both paths. It was time to choose one or the other. And I chose working in mental health, despite my oath.

Andy Vantrease  07:44
I feel like sometimes life really keeps guiding us towards those things that we’re truly supposed to be doing, even if it’s going there clawing and kicking and not thinking that is the path that we want to go down.

Matt Kuntz  07:59
Yeah, that was, I guess I just made that decision that this is still affecting me. I’m still losing the people that I love. And I can either face it head on, or just let it continue to take the people that I love, without engaging. And as soon as it was framed in that stance, it was a lot easier. And I still think being in this field really expands the people that you care about that are at risk of dying from these things. So I still lose people. And it’s still hard, but at least there is something about working and trying to make those big picture differences, that makes it a little bit more livable, that you can do it in their honor list.

Andy Vantrease  08:51
And you had some of your own personal journey after coming home from, from your time in the army as well. Right? Having gone through some of the feelings, did that make you any more able to begin to relate as you started fighting for this cause?

Matt Kuntz  09:09
Yeah, so I have struggled with depression, since high school as well. So I do think it was kind of a natural thing for me to relate and engage with people that have some of those conditions. And I didn’t go to war. I was injured in Ranger School. But in coming home, it was still really disruptive. I mean, I joined the military at 18. And you know, now I’m in my early 20s. And I don’t know what to do. The idea that this degree and everything was going to get me a lot of things turned out not to be true. I think, a lot of, a lot of people post college have that same experience. And I mean, most people in Montana didn’t even know what West Point was. And so I had to rebuild a life. And I did really struggle. And when I was injured, and just how hard that was to be injured in the military, and how we viewed it as being a failure, and all of these really hard things. And you combine that with relationship things, you know, that kind of baseline level of suicidality really peaked, right before I left the military. So I was really blessed to be able to make it through. And I have used that experience, to try to tell people to keep going or to be able to relate to them. And especially what saved me basically was, I realized that I had to go pay my rent.

Andy Vantrease  10:45

Matt Kuntz  10:46
And yeah, as, you know, like I was on the chair to hang myself. I was like, Oh, geez, I gotta go pay my rent or, cuz this poor, this poor person, probably gonna take a while to deal with whatever I’m leaving them. So I went to the mailbox to go pay my rent, and was coming back. And I was in Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, but I lived off post. And there was a Hawaiian man, that, you know, there’s a lot of racial between whites and Native Hawaiians. And, and we hadn’t talked. And I heard him crying. And I walked up to him and started talking with him. And we talked. Two hours later, I came back to my house, and I wasn’t ready to do it anymore. And it made me realize that there were parts of my brain that were still functional and engaging, even if the part of me that wanted to sustain life wasn’t there. You know, so that’s been something that I’ve been able to really work in, when I am in that situation of being kind of forced to care for somebody that’s really struggling, to remember that there are those other parts of their brain that they can still engage with. And if I can engage with those, then maybe we can move into a better, broader conversation.

Andy Vantrease  12:15
If you can remember back what ended up helping pull you out of the place that you were in, and perhaps bring some balance back into your psyche.

Matt Kuntz  12:26
I had two close calls. One was in the military, and then one a year after I got out. And I think the first one was really I had opened myself to helping other people, and almost like a fervent way. And it really did help me. I was engaged with so many different things. I was engaged with environmental movement on the North Shore of Hawaii and a pretty fun way. And then also, I mean, even with homelessness in Honolulu. And just different activities that I was in with different groups, that gave me a place. I helped build a monastery. And it gave me a different way to identify with myself. I wasn’t just Matt, who was injured in the army, you know. I was like, somebody’s doing these things and having something else to be excited about.

Matt Kuntz  13:25
But I didn’t really do anything more structured until the second time, I was really struggling. I was home and the Iraq War was beginning. And I really found Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalhi’s Finding Flow.

Andy Vantrease  13:42

Matt Kuntz  13:43
And that book was really important. And just the idea that, hey, I can structure my life in a more mentally healthy way. And it will make a difference for me. You know, that led to me writing another book. It changed the way that I work out, or like, the way that I read. Or just saying, I probably need to think about how I use my brain more. Because this brain, this brain could do amazing things, and this brain can be really internally destructive. But I got to manage it. I was really fortunate. Looking back that while I do have that depression, that low level suicidality, and I’ve always had it, it has been relatively easy to manage, compared to some of the other people that I’m friends with or that I care about where, you know, in some ways that has become their life. In the same way that if someone had cancer.

Andy Vantrease  14:42

Matt Kuntz  14:43
There are different kinds of cancer. And I’m gonna go get a little spot removed on my skin next month, and that’ll be doable part of cancer. But then there’s someone else who they are struggling to stay alive. And I think that that’s what’s cool about thinking about mental illness from a combination of biological and environmental factors is it really does say, hey, that’s the same as our heart, our lungs, anything else. And the idea that you can be struggling some versus totally overwhelming. It’s the same thing with a lung condition, cancer. Mental health, mental illness fits right in that same space. You know, like, I got something that I need to manage, but it’s not my every day. You know, but, man, I got a whopper. And it’s something that I’m going to be engaged with my whole life.

Andy Vantrease  15:41
Something that you go through in life, and it is hard, and it warrants grief, and it warrants all of the other, you know, cascade and complexity of feelings for some indeterminate amount of time, usually in different waves and spirals, versus something that is more clinical, or something that as you would describe is kind of an underlying condition that flares up when some type of trauma happens and kind of kicks into gear and takes over, like you said. I just wanting to start to open up what the differences are, walk people through when it’s, quote, normal to have different grief thoughts and different depressive thoughts versus when does this start to be something that you want to call in extra support for and you want to really start to take seriously perhaps?

Matt Kuntz  16:42
And that is really hard. There is no clear line for anybody in the field. I think that that’s what we tell our nominee families is if people don’t approach these big questions with humility, then kind of hold on to your wallet and start walking backwards. So I’ll do my best to take a crack at it. I really think about the brain in terms of, you know, it’s roughly 85 billion neurons or nerve cells, and they talk to each other all the times. You know, those, those neurons are communicating with each other and spreading thoughts and feelings. and leading to actions. It’s a complicated system, and it’s amazing. The human brain is fascinating, and we’re only beginning to understand. And it’s not always going to work perfectly. The trick is really, is it doing what you want it to. And that’s different from me that that’s different for you, that’s different for everybody. But at some level are your neurons, showing the world as you see it. You know, and is your brain functioning in a way that you can rely on it day to day to allow you to love, allow you to consistently go after the career that you want to, you know, to learn and to do, those are super important things. And when your neural circuits are firing in a way that makes you feel like you’ve lost something deep. It could be because you just lost something deep. You know, you could have lost a friend, and you were feeling a very real sense of loss that you should feel. And it’s healthy, and you should experience those dark depths. It’s part of what makes us human. But if you were experiencing that, when you’re at home with your kids, and partner, and it’s Thursday night, and you didn’t lose anything, but you still like your brain is still sending you these waves of loss, these waves of emotion, is that serving you. You know, or is that creating some kind of barrier to communication? Is that creating some kind of a challenge? Or is your pattern recognition to end up so high that you’re struggling with delusions, you know, and making connections to things that aren’t there? You know, and, or are you seeing things that aren’t there? Or hearing things that aren’t there? And I think that well, there’s two things, there’s biological susceptibility and environmental factors. We each have a biological susceptibility to have a brain function and dysfunction. And then you start to pile on these environmental factors. Some of them are good…exercise diet, having a faith practice, you know, having a sense of community, having an occupation that engages you, tires you out and all that stuff. Or the negative, you know, the trauma or chemicals that aren’t affecting you right. I mean, all of the different negative stressors that can happen in life can make it less likely for your brain to function.

Matt Kuntz  20:08
If depression or bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, I mean, all these disorders are kind of labeled and they’re tangled mix, and it’s the status of the science, but it’s not perfect. But I think the main thing is, is, do you have symptoms that are making it hard to live your life? And, you know, yeah, it’s okay to have those symptoms, right after something huge happened. You know, or like, maybe if you’re on a roll with work, maybe you’re gonna get more manic. Maybe you’re a little bit more paranoid during the election time of the year. All of this is not necessarily negative. But it can be. When you hit the point where this isn’t serving your life. And it might be, you know, that you see it in the number of broken relationships that you have. You know, maybe, maybe that’s your thing. Maybe it’s jobs, not working out. Like, hey, maybe something’s going on with my communication skills, or how I’m seeing the world. You know, maybe I’m looking through the world in such a negative way, because of my depression or anxiety, that’s making it so I can achieve what I want to. It’s a really tricky field, and I do love it. And I’ve seen people really do much better. And when you see that, it’s the most amazing thing. And it, like may not, may not be forever. You know, these illnesses kind of, are these symptoms kind of come and go.

Andy Vantrease  21:44
What have you seen in the last decade or dozen years of doing this work, as far as the integration of mental health into this massive category that we consider health? From your lens, what does the lessening of the stigma look like?

Matt Kuntz  22:02
I think it is hopeful. Overall, I believe that we are moving forward, and just our openness as a society to talk about this to address this. You know, I feel, believe in some ways, we’re going back to where we used to be.

Andy Vantrease  22:19
What do you mean by that?

Matt Kuntz  22:20
For all of human history, we kind of knew each other. You know like, like the people that you cared about, you saw them, and you talk to them, and they were in your village. There were people that you saw and worked with all the time. And then we kind of got to the industrial age or like industrial-communication age, and we saw these cardboard cutouts of people. On our television, John F. Kennedy looked perfect. Nobody knew all the things that he was struggling with, or that he was doing. I mean, like we saw these perfect people. And it made us think maybe everybody’s supposed to be perfect. And I think historically, if you read the biographies, that wasn’t the expectation. We had people going into mental hospitals. We had like Abraham Lincoln’s friends taking his knives away, after a breakup. You know, we had Thomas Jefferson, who everybody was worried about being suicidal after his wife’s death. You know, like, these were things that were discussed and talked about, because they were unavoidable. You know, in real life, I don’t need to tell somebody when I’m depressed. They know. So I think that we are, I guess, maybe now that our communication channels are changing and broadening, it’s no longer that we see people in a one hour snippet on Thursday nights. You know, their, their lives are out there. For better or worse, people are showing what they’re like. And I think it is cool, because we realize that a lot of people that we would label as successful, really struggle, you know like they really struggled to the point of like losing their life to mental health or substance abuse. You know, so I think that that is a cool part of where we’re at, in communication technology and communication strategies is we’re getting a little bit more like the village that we were before.

Matt Kuntz  24:31
There’s also that realization that people aren’t perfect. And that the standards that we have had for people probably were never realistic. The challenges, were waiting for the technology of treatment to catch up. And so many people that realize that it’s important. You know, our tools of diagnosing and treating these hasn’t kept up. You know, and I think that some of this is leading to new and exciting parts of the field. Yeah, and part of that is bringing in the physical health. Part of that is bringing in yoga and exercise, and meditation. And, you know, expanding to hey, what else worked? You know, like, if some of these worked for 1000s of years, it probably works. Whether or not we have the right clinical trials, to show it, you know, there, there is something there, or people wouldn’t have been doing it for all that time. But we’re also bringing on, you know, advanced sensors and scans and, and different tools, where I think that we are getting closer to figuring out kind of what these neural circuit things are, and hopefully, ensure that people are getting the right care at the right time.

Andy Vantrease  25:53
It seems like the diagnosis of what the condition is, has everything to do with what a therapist or a counselor or a doctor can then help the patient with as far as what the treatments are that are particular to their diagnosis. I know you’ve said that a lot of times people, that you’re working with, get misdiagnosed with depression, when really they have bipolar. And a medication that could be given to them for depression will actually send them into mania. And so there’s, so it really seems like the research and the studies that are being done now are super, super important to get to these more distinguishable diagnoses, to lead to the appropriate care. What are some of the focuses of research that you’re particularly excited about?

Matt Kuntz  26:49
I think that part of this is where I got lucky or fortunate with the organization I ended up with, NAMI was founded in Wisconsin by a group of mothers with children who had schizophrenia. And at the time, mothers of children with schizophrenia were being blamed as causing their children’s schizophrenia, by how they parent it. That was the status of our field in like the 70s. They blame these mothers for how they parent. And of course, they didn’t blame the fathers, but we didn’t parent all that much. So there was just all this heaping blame was put on these mothers for having this horrendously difficult mental health condition for their children. And these mothers realized that it wasn’t true. You know, like they had, they had two children. They raised both of them the same way. What, why did it cause schizophrenia in one, and the other is fine. And they also realized that it followed in the family. You know, like they had family members who also had schizophrenia. And they had that from their family histories. And that was part of the push for more of a scientific analysis of what caused these conditions. And we’re not there yet. Even with schizophrenia, there is a combination of biological and environmental factors that we haven’t yet unlocked. But it is certainly not because those mothers corrected their children in a certain way, when they were telling them to quit watching cartoons or something.

Matt Kuntz  28:37
In order to get better care, we need better research. So I was fortunate with that with NAMI, and that is something that I’ve been focused on since the beginning of my time here. And I know we got a bill through Congress after my brother’s death. And it was really focused on getting screenings to everybody who was, before they left for war, as they were coming back, and structured and in-person manner. But even as we were passing that bill, I, I was able to see with the families I was working with every day, that even if you get perfect screenings, we end up with a diagnostic system that isn’t set up for success. You know, like, like, there’s a lot of different types of depression. And there’s probably a lot of different types of schizophrenia. There’s more than one. Yes. And how do we, how do we sort that that out in a way that someone doesn’t feel like their psychiatrist is treating them as a test dummy? Like, you know, if you’re on your third medication or fourth medication, that, that’s really sad. You know, and you’re not trusting what you’re given. You’re not trusting your physician. And part of it is just the state of the science. And that’s why we, we’ve been really relentless and pushing more precision, mental health. And there is a lot of exciting research that’s been happening last few years. And I’m really excited about what the next 10 years has. And part of why we did our last bill that got through Congress was the Commander John Scott Hannon Act, and we have a precision mental health initiative in there, that is getting the VA to really research these in a structured and efficient manner and like really open, so other researchers can build on each other’s progress. Part of the challenge is, we really only research at a high level, what has a chance of paying back? You know, like, like, the money for that research has to come from somewhere. It’s really hard to sell people in preventive research, when they know, a lot of preventive research doesn’t necessarily pay.

Andy Vantrease  31:11
Who’s funding this research?

Matt Kuntz  31:13
If it’s preventive research, it usually comes down to the National Institute of Health. We have seen some privately funded research, but I think, mathematically, it almost comes out of the National Institute of Health. So they are, they’re also tricky, because they want their research to be successful. So they kind of stay on the same path, and don’t take a lot of risk. Or there’s the balance in what do you do for basic research, where you’re like, we’re trying to discover what these conditions even are? Versus what can help people right now.

Andy Vantrease  31:56
Gotcha. Okay.

Matt Kuntz  31:57
All of these have a balance and, and you know, how much do you invest in, like, there’s a medication for schizophrenic called Clozapine. And you need a blood test in order to make sure that that medication doesn’t cause a blood condition called Agranular Cytosis. And there’s no doubt that if we knew how to properly deliver that medication in in a safe manner, it would improve more lives of people in institutions or on the streets with schizophrenia. But we haven’t really invested that much and figuring out that blood test, because we are hopeful that maybe there will be another way to treat that condition. Do you go all in on improving imperfect existing technology? Or do you go all in on trying to find something else that works better? And it’s a balance. And there’s only so much money to go around. And a lot of this stuff is also how do you fund it, long term-wise. You know, if you’re proving a psychotherapy works, then do you copyright that and make everybody pay you for your psychotherapy? And there are those psychotherapies. And psychologists have to pay a ton of money to get approved to be able to deliver them. But really, it’s paying back the research that happened at the beginning to show that they work. So…

Andy Vantrease  33:34

Matt Kuntz  33:35
You know, if the private philanthropists, if they get excited about something, it’s not necessarily something that might really help the field, it’s more of just what they’re into. It’s really tricky. But but it’s also really important. So now it’s why we started the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery at Montana State, with the idea that we need more of this research. And it’s imperfect and messy. But to be able to say what’s working, and what’s not working, so you’re not dumping money into things that aren’t helping people.

Andy Vantrease  34:11
What are you working on at MSU? Right now, what research is being done there?

Matt Kuntz  34:17
I helped start the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery about five years ago. They’ve had a couple of different research projects come through. I ran it for two years. And now I’m back at NAMI. Two angles that have really taken off there. One is internet modalities, or how to how to use technology to kind of augment the workforce or augment the traditional medical treatment system. There’s an online cognitive behavioral therapy app that’s proven to reduce suicidality. We’re also in the middle of an augmented reality projects to help opioids. And it’s funny because it does get down, back to medicine. And back to like using these technologies, even to kind of bring in some of these older practices and helping them come into people’s lives. The other one that I’m personally really excited about is the Youth Aware of Mental Health program, which was developed in Sweden, and was proven to be incredibly successful. It was featured in the Lancet in a 10-country study on reducing suicidality in youth. And we were fortunate enough to bring it to Montana and Texas, were the first two sites. It was being offered and Helena and Browning, and a lot of different communities that have different backgrounds. And before COVID hit it was supposed to be in 30 Montana schools last year. So we have a little bit of a pause, because the schools are in such a mess with the pandemic, and they can’t even teach what they need to teach much less bringing in addon programs like this one.

Andy Vantrease  36:00
Even though it seems like this program would be very beneficial for the exact time period that we’re in.

Matt Kuntz  36:07
I think, I think it would be, but logistics matter.

Andy Vantrease  36:12

Matt Kuntz  36:13
And if you can’t get a group of kids in a classroom…

Andy Vantrease  36:16
This isn’t telehealth or online?

Matt Kuntz  36:18
No. And we’ve looked at ways to do it via telehealth and online. But the reality is, is it is person to person working on their communication styles. It’s a five hour course. And the first hour is just kind of the basics of mental health. And getting kids to understand what depression is, what anxiety is, and those things. And the last hour is helping them be aware of what’s available in their community. But the middle three hours are kind of where everyone thinks the magic is. And those are small group exercises, to help them work through difficult scenarios, and kind of an improv way. So they’ll give you a description card, and everybody will get assigned a task. And two students involved…It might be how to have a breakup after somebody cheats. In the first scenario, I might be the cheater. In the second scenario, you might. You know, it’s a really hard conversation. But if you work through those skills, you’ll be able to do it. Or one of them is you’re in a car, and you realize that the driver is drunk. What do you do? You know, and that’s a tough thing for a 16 year old to figure out. And it’s funny because the kids come up with their own things. And so it’s not scripted. Like they are thinking through this, they are not being told what’s right or wrong. They’re acting them and feeling them and seeing what works and what doesn’t. And one of them said, Oh, I would just say that I’m going to throw up. I could have thought through a million different things, and that was not the one. But it’s perfect, you know?

Andy Vantrease  38:02

Matt Kuntz  38:03
And, and again, it’s not teaching them off a script. It’s helping them work through the tools of difficult communication strategies. At least my version of why I think it works is if you can get a little bit better at improving your emotional decision making, even if it’s like 5%, that could be the difference in whether or not you get a raise, that could be the difference in whether or not your spouse stays, you know, or, or whether or not you leave in an abusive spouse. That can have just an amazing change of your trajectory. And when I look at the long term reduction in suicidality that they saw in Europe through the program, how much of that could be that these kids with depression that didn’t have the tools, or that were developing depression and struggling with communications, learned a few communication shortcuts?

Andy Vantrease  39:07

Matt Kuntz  39:08
It’s not going to make your C into a B in math class, but it can help explain to your parents why you got to C.

Andy Vantrease  39:15
You know, I always have these conversations of what I wish I had learned in school. And you know, some of these more emotional awareness and communication style courses, classes, programs, that’s the meat of how to grow into a functioning, loving, compassionate adult.

Matt Kuntz  39:36
Yeah, no, and that was what was fascinating was we had a suicide epidemic at Helena High which is one of the high schools in the town where their Feather Pipe Ranch is the same time that we were bringing over the Youth Aware of Mental Health program. And I was asked to come in and talk to the students because the students were angry. And you know, that they had lost several of their classmates. And they want to change. And, and that was what they were saying was we need a course on this. Like this is what’s affecting our life. You give us courses on everything else. This is the one that we need. And it was wild, because on the other side of the world, the researchers are saying the same thing. I think was the 2014 through 2016. So two-years stretch and trying to figure out, did it work in exactly this way or that, I think is really hard to prove. You can’t say the suicide rate went down because of this, you know, just because of how stats work. But it certainly went down. Our town in general struggled with suicide, like our state has. We have highest suicide rate in the country, somewhere around the top five. You know, there’s like five western states that shuffle around who’s between one and five. And it’s pretty much down the Rocky Mountain corridor to include Alaska, maybe Oklahoma. Pretty sad. And I think that there’s a lot of different reasons why our state struggles with that. The reasons that we’re asking the researchers to keep researching.

Andy Vantrease  41:16
What are some of the things that they are researching, some of those factors?

Matt Kuntz  41:20
Yeah, I think that there are kind of natural factors where population groups that are heavily affected by suicide. You know, the elderly population is heavily affected. Native American, veterans, Montanans in general, are more likely to use a gun when attempting suicide, and there’s no waking up in the ER after you attempt suicide with a gun. So we have a lot of different factors that affect us. But we really lean on our researchers to say, look at the factors that we can affect. We’re not going to change access to guns. We’re not going to change overall poverty rate of our state anytime soon. We’re not going to change hundreds of years of trauma in the native communities in an instant. Let’s work with what we have and save people while we can. We try to be really pragmatic and proactive that way.

Andy Vantrease  42:22
Good. I want to dive in just for a minute here on some of the legislature that you’ve helped pass. Can you touch a bit on the COVER Commission, and then on the most recent one, the Commander John Scott Hannon?

Matt Kuntz  42:35
Absolutely. So NAMI Montana does focus on legislation a lot, because so much of our mental health system is tied to our federal funding and where the treatment comes from. So, and with with veterans, I think if if you’re not doing it at the Department of Defense, or the VA, you are missing the boat. And you get to that through legislation or through participating with Congress. And so I was fortunate enough to be chosen to be on the COVER Commission, which where we analyzed veterans mental health treatment systems and and outside of the VA, and then reported back to the President and Congress. And we turned that report in last February. It was an 18-month work. And I really was happy with what came out of it. We, we traveled around the country. We talked to veterans. We talked to amazing researchers and came up with big things and small things, a lot of it examination of alternative practices and guidelines on Tai Chi and yoga, and creating a path for them to be used. And the VA had been doing some of that, but one of the things that we found out was, was the research wasn’t keeping up with the practice. You do have to be doing the research on these thing to make sure you’re offering things that work. And even if the modality works, what if it’s not in the way that you’re doing it? We found with a COVER Commission, the research wasn’t keeping up with with what was going on out in the field. So we came up with some guidance to work on that. And that transferred directly into the Commander John Scott Hannon Act, which was signed into law in October.

Andy Vantrease  44:31

Matt Kuntz  44:32
Yeah, it was it was really cool. I think, inarguably biggest veterans suicide prevention legislation on the federal level, in the past decade. A lot of work and really a cool bipartisan effort. I know people are rightly frustrated with the state of partisanship in this country. But that bill went through Congress, through the House and the Senate, without a single no vote.

Andy Vantrease  45:00

Matt Kuntz  45:01
Nobody voted against that bill, both parties. And it was a contentious bill. I mean, suicide research and prevention, people view it different ways. And some of this stuff took years to get to the point where, where we were ready to roll. And it was cool. The bill was named after my friend, Commander John Scott Hannon, his family’s place lies right next to the Feathered Pipe Ranch, his nephew worked for the Feather Pipe this summer for a little bit.

Andy Vantrease  45:33
Okay, gosh, it’s so close to home. That’s amazing. And I just want to read kind of just a summary of the act just to give people an understanding of what has just been passed. So “bolster the VA mental health workforce and increase rural veterans access to care, while expanding veterans access to alternative and local treatment options like animal therapy, outdoor sports and activities, yoga, and acupuncture.” And just for that statement, to be, you know, in a federal bill is pretty amazing.

Matt Kuntz  46:07
And it’s amazing. I know, from talking to India, from seeing what the Feathered Pipe Ranch has done. You know, a big part of this was people bringing these treatment modalities to the United States in the 70s, and being looked on as crackpots or whatever. Everybody’s a crackpot until it’s proven that their stuff works. You know, so it was all of those pioneers that fought the good fight. And that certainly includes those of the Feathered Pipe Ranch that have worked on this for years. And part of it is is also trying to make sure that what we get out of it is effective and works and lives up to the meaning and the spirit of what these kind of treatments are.

Andy Vantrease  46:59
I was reading your recent post on Medium about the Insurgent Strategy that you say is the foundation of the way that you have been able to do the work that you do. It’s basically how it traditionally weaker force plans to achieve these long term goals. And I wanted to bring it up because there’s this split between those who are interested in political change. And those who think that change is going to happen on a more grassroots or, you know, social level. What I loved about what you wrote is just…Here, I’ll just read one point that really caught my attention. You said, “I read accounts of the strength and courage of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi, without realizing that the tool set that they were using to create change in their day, mobilizing a population against a stronger force to achieve certain objectives, was almost exactly what I had studied in my insurgency research at West Point. And the exact strategy that I was using to pass two bills on a federal level, many bills on a statewide level, and also finding partners and stakeholders.” To me, it’s like this nonviolent protest, or nonviolent communication type of piece is kind of a very spiritual thing. It’s a very compassion based strategy. And I’m wondering how you came to that conclusion after learning that in a military academy?

Matt Kuntz  48:26
Wars in the political spectrum. It is part of the political toolkit. And I think that if you realize that, that you’re able to think there are the strategies that they do, and war, that you can take away the guns, take away everything else, and really be able to use some of those concepts in peacetime, and to change things in democracies or others. And, you know, I don’t think that any of what I learned or what I did was new. You know, that there are people that have been doing different versions of this for thousands of years, the week have been trying to change things with the strong, you gotta have specific objectives, or you’re done. You know, if you’re, if you’re the weaker power, you you got to be on your game. You know, if you’re, like me, some random guy out in Montana, trying to pass laws through Congress, you better know your stuff. You better be focused. And you better be able to find partners. You better be flexible. All these big power sources. They can’t be flexible. And you’ve also got to realize that there’s something cool about being weak, because it’s hard for them to threaten to take things away from you. Like they’re, they’ve got these giant budgets. Like I know when I was first pushing for screening In Montana, it was me against the governor at that time, and in kind of this public fight. And he had so much more on his plate, you know, all these giant state budget issues and everything else. And I was just a goofball with a little tiny apartment and a job that I didn’t like. There wasn’t a lot else for me to do other than fight this. So you don’t want to have somebody like that. Just the idea that some of these things are strengths. And it’s really been remarkable over the years, how often it has worked. And I think it’s cool, because there’s nothing special about me or my application of anything. You know, the words aren’t smarter, better. It’s a really focused toolset, how to go after and change the things that you care the most about.

Andy Vantrease  50:54
Is there a place where people can read into that theory or that strategy without having to go to West Point Academy?

Matt Kuntz  51:03
I am trying to post that on Medium. Now, I’m trying to be a little bit more specific about this is how you do it. And things like, you have to be super specific. If you’re weak, not being afraid to take years to fix something, because it’s really hard for the strong to oppose something for years. They’re gonna die or change jobs. And we’ll still be here fighting, and eventually they’ll cave. So, you can do things to financially support it, like go and look for sponsors, or this or that. Or you can be just a person that drives Uber delivers pizza. And it’s almost impossible to stop. You know, because you found another way to sustain what you’re working on. There was a Helena man that ended up doing a lot of work in Nepal. And he came up with all of his ideas, while he was a Dominos driver. And he drove around Helena for three years, and then launched this amazing nonprofit in Nepal. It was really cool, because no one could really stop that, except for by not ordering pizza.

Andy Vantrease  52:14
Last thing that I want to ask you is what it is that keeps you going day after day. I mean, where are you finding your hope? Where are you finding the drive that is behind this strategy? Kind of where’s your lifeforce come from?

Matt Kuntz  52:30
Yeah, you know, I think that part of it is that depression, and that it’s not all bad. You know, and I was able to work and control it, and work with my brain, you know, that the that brain, that brain’s gonna be chewing on something all the time. And either I let it chew on me, and come up with all venture reasons why I’m bad, or I give it tasks and this and that. NAMI for me, has been a real sense of community, and our support groups. And you know, the Montana Conference on Mental Illness is just the most amazing group of people. And a lot of them coming from day treatment centers or group homes. And, you know, to see people’s lives improved, is really amazing. I will also, to be honest that, [I] tired of losing the people that I love to this. And I made the decision 12 years ago that you turn into face, what is hurting you instead of trying to run from it, because every time I tried to run from it, it always caught me. And my last comment would be just for everybody to think about their own mental health. And really try to see if there’s something that you can do to improve your mental health state. I know that I really worked on mine beginning like 2008 or something and, and maintaining it, and helping me be a little bit more functional throughout my days. And boy, it is amazing what even just having that mindset, I don’t care what you do with it, but like, how I read books is different because I’m thinking about how they affect my brain. You know, how I exercise is different, how I meditate. So that would just be my one recommendation to everybody is [there is] always something to be worked on on the inside. Don’t be afraid to tackle it, even if that’s the most scary thing to work on.

Andy Vantrease  54:44
Wow. Wow. Wow…Big inhale and exhale for that conversation. Thank you so much to Matt for sharing his story with us and showing us how courageous people can be when they lean into the things that scare them, the harder darker parts of life that we all experience in some way, shape or form. And I hope this conversation got you thinking about what it actually means to interact with your brain to take care of your brain just as you take care of your heart, or your lungs, or your knees or your feet. It’s it’s a part of us in that same exact way.

Andy Vantrease  55:29
For more information on Matt’s work, you can find him at NAMIMT.org, that n a m i, m t.org and montana.edu/cmhrr that is the website for the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery at MSU. He also contributes regularly on Medium where he humbly offers “A weird mix of mental health policy tech writing and Montana.”

A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.

This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day.

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