Billings-area psychotherapist Kee Dunning is on a mission to save the lives of Montana’s young people and slash the state’s abysmal youth suicide rate with support from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana.
Since appearing with two of her clients in the 2022 Ken Burns documentary, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness,” Dunning has partnered with St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation to show the film to audiences across the state to reduce youth mental illness stigma, as well as provide education and training to nearly 2,000 Montanans. The film highlights the U.S. youth mental health crisis by documenting the struggles of nearly two dozen young people ages 11 to 27 across the country.
In Montana, suicide has been the second-leading cause of death for children and young people ages 10 to 24 for at least decade, according to a state report.
After each viewing, Dunning presents what she has developed as her “Kee Concepts of Communication” workshop, instructing adults how to improve relationships through better communication and listening, as well as recognize opportunities to support children rather than judge or dismiss their concerns. She’s met with parents, teachers, doctors and government employees — anyone in a position to positively affect a child’s well-being and help prevent someone from taking their life.
“Establishing that relationship is the most important thing,” Dunning says. “Everyone shows up to do their best, and we all like to be seen and heard. Kids just need to know they have value.”
With help from a $50,000 BCBSMT grant to St. Vincent for each of the next three years, Dunning’s team has traveled to some of the state’s most remote areas to try to prevent youth suicides. The foundation is a recipient of BCBSMT’s Blue Impact℠ grants through its Big Blue Sky℠ initiative to improve young Montanans’ behavioral health outcomes.
The Blue Impact grants are part of BCBSMT’s effort to support community investment focus areas, including the need to increase physical and mental health access, close care gaps and improve people’s lives.
“Montana is a rough and tumble state. When something hurts, we tell you to, ‘Rub some dirt on it and get back in there.’ But that doesn’t work with mental ailments,” says John Doran, BCBSMT’s divisional vice president of external affairs. “Kee is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. She is wonderful at helping break the stigma of mental illness, and her extensive work with youth across the state is making significant progress in helping youth boost their mental wellness.”
Dunning’s goal is to visit every school in Montana and reach as many people as she can. Unafraid to show vulnerability, she communicates love and understanding in almost everything she says and does, and she’s passionate about helping young people learn to express themselves just as freely without fear of shame, ridicule or stigma.
Dunning believes the documentary has the potential to lead people and communities toward that transformation, and she’s overwhelmed by BCBSMT’s support to help make it happen.
“I want kids to know there’s always hope,” she says. “Don’t you dare give up.”