The Failing of a State

Two years ago I wrote a post called The Failing of a Town. This tragic piece features the story of Deon Gillen of Livingston, Montana. Gillen was repeated bullied in school, often being called stupid and retarded. After numerous failed attempts over several years by his mother to get the school to intervene, Deon finally relented to the abuse and committed suicide.The school’s excuse was that the main instigator of the bullying was “sneaky and hard to catch.” According to a law suit filed by his mother, Deon was diagnosed by a Billings Clinic doctor as suffering from aggravated post-traumatic stress disorder. Livingston only has a population of 7,500 people. Situations like this do not go unnoticed. This was a collective failure by the community not to take action even when the school wouldn’t. Livingston’s “boys will be boys” or “man up” culture instilled at a young age took precedence over the life of Deon and who knows how many other nameless children who have gone through similar plights in life.


The Decay of our Civic Consciousness

Recently I’ve focused on the importance of a community creating a set of foundational norms and expectations to guide their civic actions. This was articulated in the piece Giving Permission. At the core of a community’s well-being is its willingness to “grant permission” to its residents to dream and be truly be who they are without prejudice or marred by past societal traditions often irrelevant in today’s world.

In the piece Consciousness of Community I extrapolated on a model of the advent consciousness developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tononi theorized that consciousness stemmed from specific learned features in the mind’s architecture. This integrated information theory (IIT) suggested that consciousness was an intrinsic property of the right kind of cognitive network. In the case of a community, this “right kind of cognitive network” was the values, norms and expectations a community instills in its residents. Before we can expect to undertake specific actions to produce substantive change, the right architecture needs to be set – resulting in its foundational psyche or personality.

Pragmatically, I believe before we can successfully address any mental health issues such as those encountered by Deon Gillen, we have to address the norms of our community and the expectations we put on our residents. Does the community stress inclusion, creativity, empathy, out-of-box thinking, diversity and benevolence? Or does it prefer to lean on tradition, hierarchy, passivity, ancestral background and preservation of the status quo. These seemingly benign implications will dictate how residents react when confronted with a situation like that encountered by Deon.

Earlier this month I ran across an article by Montana Public Radio about how the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin and Park, and Sweet Grass Counties had secured $250,00 in funding for youth suicide prevention. I started reading the piece not expecting much revelation; but then I hit the second paragraph:

Youth suicides in Montana are about triple the national average. One in ten high school students and one in seven middle school students reported attempting suicide in 2018, according to the state’s health department.

One in seven middle school kids tied to kill themselves last year. Why is it that everyone in the state isn’t scared shitless for their kids? Why isn’t this newsworthy on a daily basis? Why should I have to find it buried in a MPR story online? How much longer are the people here going to quit hiding behind the Montana mystique and the facade of perfection in the big sky country … and wake the hell up!

Whenever I talk to people about living here they always ask, “it must be wonderful there.” The same goes for the national media. You can see it with the talking heads on MSNBC and CNN fawning over Steve Bullock and his ill-advised presidential bid. It’s like he’s going to bring some wonderful insight on how to solve the country’s problems because he is governor of Montana — a state where one in seven middle schools kids tried to kill themselves because because they have no hope. I’d hardly call that an exemplary track record.


“Cowboy Up” and Mental Illness

Reigning supreme in Montana and the neighboring states is the cowboy. It’s an all encompassing lifestyle; down to the mandatory skin-tight Wrangler jeans. This romanticizing of the cowboy has been proliferated in no small way by Hollywood and big screen portrayal of their ideal; Gene Autry, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, among others. Their world wasn’t one of community: it was one of the outsider – stoic and always hiding their emotions, often not even verbally communicating. This emotional repression was seen as strength – thus the “cowboy up” mentality. Sharing feelings or god forbid seeking out help was a show of weakness. And this went not only for males. Women adopted the “cowboy up” mental also.


The Failing of a State

Montana Governor Bullock has spent every ounce of his political capital over seven years fighting unsuccessfully for pre-school education. While I’m not against this, I can’t see how a more structured environment for three and four year olds should take precedence over every other aspect of a young person’s upbringing. On the contrary, their most difficult period is when they navigate the transition through adolescence to adulthood – especially for those facing a sexual identity crisis in communities where the “real them” in shunned.

The meteoric rise of seventeen year old goth-pop recording artist Billie Eilish demonstrates the need that young people, especially young girls, have to have someone to identify with and be heard.

The contrast between the siblings’ warm, gorgeous pop undergirded by the eerie and sinister may be indicative of our times which for many are filled with tension, unease and anxiety. Seeing a world with so much division and strife, how can this younger generation not feel disaffected or alienated by such an uninspiring, regressive older guard and its inability to effectively lead? That this simultaneous light and dark filled music so deeply resonates with such a wide-swath of youth may speak to the next generation’s understanding of what’s happening and it may help them commune, “feel” and experience that tension together and hopefully move them and us far beyond this moment —something so desperately needed. (Non-Disposable Pop for Now People)

The issues they face in their lives are all but ignored in society. As long as they’re in school, all is supposedly good. Too often that is not the case. The adults of the world have created a world rife with gun violence, unrealistic expectations, environmental catastrophe and hyper-competition. All this is happening while the schools they’re made to attend often have little relevance to the creative world they see online. It instead requires conformity and adherence to societal expectations of their parents. The hypocrisy and disconnect is disconcerting to these formative minds in search for meaning in their lives going forward.


There’s a lot of attention being paid to human trafficking in Montana, especially in Billings where I’m at. Our civic leaders’ solution is more police, as it is for most every social ill here. Mostly these are not girls who are technically being kidnapped, but are being persuaded to join a group of sorts in search a better situation than they are currently in. It’s a classic gang recruiting technique; providing a family where one doesn’t otherwise exist. No amount of police is going to fix the underlying environments these young people are trying to flee from — or worse yet, kill themselves to escape.

In addition to increased law enforcement, Montana also believes the solution to outlying behavior and nonconformity is more school counselors and mental health professionals. While I don’t disagree, should we focus only on “after the fact” treatment when we ignore addressing the causes and the environments that breed the behavior and reactions in the first place? That said — too often the “after the fact” is poorly executed. For example in Billings they shut down the only place young people can go at night to get out of the cold — as they attempt to flee the horribleness of their home lives. Budget cuts they say. Or when adding school counselors, why do they always put them in the administrative area next to the principals? Gossip spreads like wild fire, even among adults. It’s hard to expect a vulnerable young person to reach out for help when they have to walk past the principals office to get it. This lack of thought in execution dismisses the social dynamics and complexities of a young person’s life.

Communities always say they’re inviting and inclusive. People say hello – sometimes. They hold the door open – occasionally. But much of the time this guise is little more than an exercise in being polite. In Billings, they say they don’t discriminate towards gays, but they refuse to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance. They say they don’t need to since they don’t discriminate. You have to love the circular logic.

But what they’re really saying is that we’re not giving you permission to be part of “our” community; because even though we’re not going to say it to your face – you’re not really one of us. “You stay over there and we’re just fine over here.” We’ll be polite if we encounter you in the street: but aside from that – you’re over there and we’re over here. Thank you very much.

These community attitudes can also be very limiting to how young people view their future career prospects. All too often certain professions reign supreme, for no other reason than they always have. I get that in a company town where a single industry dominates, say mining or manufacturing. Much of the time few other opportunities exist staying locally. That said, why is staying in town the only option? Young people are curious and there’s little worse than extinguishing that curiosity by imposing a geographically cautious worldview more applicable for their parents, or even yet their grandparents. This implied indifference or distrust to their geographically nonconformist career choices can be debilitating.

Montana is known for the pride it has in its state. This pride results in a refusal to acknowledge areas of improvement. It borders on zealotry and has turned out to be dangerous to its populace, as documented in its suicide rate topping the nation across virtually all categories, especially the youth. Until its tempered – no shortcomings will be acknowledged or addressed; first and foremost its alarmingly high suicide rates. This behavior is akin to that of an alcoholic or any other addict. Unless you admit you have problem … you’ll never fix it. And in Montana, the problem is pride and the “cowboy up” attitude where showing emotions and asking for help is considered a weakness.


Empathy cartoon 2

How Do We Fix It

We need to get to the core of our community’s behavior, not just blindly prop up our hope on more institutional action that accomplishes little except prolonging the suffering – all in the name of saying we’ve done something.

A person’s behavior is most influenced by their relationships and interaction with their peers; not their parents, not their teachers and sure not what the government says. As in the post searching for your own Billie I outlined the impact Billie Eilish is having on millions of girls and young women worldwide. Eilish is a misfit popstar. She is unconventional in her music, in the way she dresses and the image she presents to the world. In a society where teens are constantly struggling with feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and self-deprecation, Eilish provides hope that misfits too can reach their dreams and take control of their lives. But she’s still looked as a peer. Just go into the comments section of one of her videos on YouTube. You’ll read a plethora of fans who say how her words and music saved their lives. To know they weren’t alone and someone as famous as Billie had and is going through the same thing and is their age, gives them comfort … comfort that can’t be gotten from an adult. She is the spokesperson for their transition into adulthood … saying what they cannot themselves articulate, yet feel daily.


First we have to understand we’re addicts; addicted to the cultural norms that are literally killing us. In Montana it’s the so-called manly “cowboy up” attitude and emotional repression. We have to allow everyone, especially our young people, the permission to be who they really are and express themselves accordingly – without being ostracized for not conforming to some archaic societal norm ill-designed for any sort of an inclusive society.

And the vehicle we’ll need to get there is not the monolithic institutions designed to proliferate these exact toxic norms in the first place. No government is going to fix this. You can’t legislate morality or cultural norms. Instead we’re going to have use the our most effective leverage of society and community – us, through the use of influential peers. To quote my last piece, we’re going to have to find our own Billies … and lots of them.

… end part one


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