Editor’s note: Today, the Missoulian presents the second in a three-part series on Montana’s suicide epidemic.
HELENA – Matt Kuntz did not want to die. But he thought he must.
It was November 2000 when he mapped out his exit strategy.
“It felt like you’re a person in a dark room, terrified and scared of the dark,” said Kuntz, 35, now executive director of Montana’s Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “All you can feel is that single doorknob. You know that you don’t want to turn it, but in the end, can you be in the dark any longer?”
From all appearances, Kuntz seemed to have it all. He has a keen intellect and was a remarkable athlete, playing rugby, all-state football, wrestling and swimming. In 1999, he graduated from West Point and was commissioned an Army infantry officer.
Life was good.
Then, over the course of six months while stationed in Hawaii, a severe ankle injury in Ranger School left him crippled and his military aspirations in tatters. On top of that, his fiancée betrayed him, and he was homesick for Montana.
The confluence of events triggered earlier bouts of depression that had been suppressed since high school and West Point.
“I couldn’t take it another second,” Kuntz said. “The pain hurt so bad – deep pain.”
He looped a rope around a rafter in the attic, secured it with an overhand hitch knot and tested it to ensure it would hold his 200 pounds. As a chair wobbled beneath his feet, he tested the noose again.
“You feel like you’re under water,” he said. “All you can think about is that breath and being overwhelmed by the torment your brain is throwing at you. All you can think about is ending it. I’ve been at the bottom of the Madison River in March getting bashed around by rapids. I can tell you, that’s nowhere near as terrifying as being in the grips of depression.”
Before he could go through with it, he decided to go downstairs and write a note. As he descended the steps, he stopped to say a prayer.
“God, I love you. But I just can’t do this any more. If you have some reason that I should stay alive, I’ll give you five minutes to show me a sign.”
He then drafted two notes, but trashed them, settling finally on brevity.
“I’m sorry,” he wrote, and signed it “Matt.”
He tacked the note on the wall and climbed the stairs again.
As he slipped the noose around his neck, he realized he hadn’t paid his rent. Out of respect for his landlords, he wanted to pay them. But he didn’t think he had any blank checks, and the daily withdrawal limit on his ATM card was short of what he needed.
“You’re not thinking clearly,” Kuntz said. “Your brain is not working. It’s fundamentally not working.”
His mind wrestled with whether to go looking for a blank check or just get on with it.
He removed the noose, stepped off the chair and frantically scoured his apartment for a check. He found one, filled it out and walked outside to drop it in the mailbox. On his way back, he noticed his neighbor, Jeff, sitting on his porch and crying.
The men talked for the next two hours. Jeff’s marriage was on the rocks, he feared he was about to be laid off and was fearful of what it would mean for his children.
“I didn’t have answers, but we talked until he felt better,” Kuntz said. “Somewhere along the way, I began to feel better, too. Helping him took my brain away from that irrational thought. I believe for a fact that my prayer was answered.”
An estimated 15 Montanans attempt suicide every day. In 2011, at least 452 people completed the act. Montanans kill themselves with greater frequency than any other state in the nation. It is such a longstanding problem in the state that mental health leaders characterize it as a public health crisis.
The crisis has many causes: a shortage of mental health professionals and mental health facilities; the state’s high rates of alcoholism; a cowboy culture where seeking treatment may be seen as weakness; and the prevalence of firearms.
Kuntz was no stranger to suicide or mental illness. As a boy, he lost a friend to an eating disorder. As a teen, two of his buddies at Capital High School in Helena killed themselves.
In March 2007, his stepbrother Chris Dana, a Montana National Guardsman, returned from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder and fatally shot himself.
It was about that time that Kuntz became the first director of NAMI Montana, campaigning to improve mental health care in Montana and change the way the public perceives mental illness.
“I felt I had the opportunity to change some big things,” he said. “We need to have a better understanding of mental illness if we want to keep these people alive.”
NAMI is the nation’s largest grass-roots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI advocates for access to services, treatment and research. It is committed to raising awareness of mental illness.
NAMI Montana has affiliates in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Flathead, Great Falls, Helena, Lewistown, Livingston, Mission Valley and Missoula.
Cindy Uken is a reporter for the Billings Gazette. Her reporting on Montana’s suicide epidemic was undertaken with the help of a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.