University Relations and Communications

Billings teens provide voice for mental illness and suicide awareness

January 22, 2014


Dr. Sarah Keller, Communications & Theatre, at or 896-5824
Carmen Price, University Relations, 657-2269


Innovative suicide-prevention campaign written and performed by Billings high school students, ‘Let's Talk Billings’ will reach out to teenagers during a Jan. 24 performance at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts at 7 p.m.


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Directed by Montana State University Billings alumni, Billings high school students will perform three original theater productions in January as part of an innovative suicide-prevention campaign using media and arts workshops to reach teenagers in Billings.


Lets Talk poster

Let’s Talk Billings, sponsored by MSU Billings and the Montana Idea Network for Biomedical Research Excellence, will be held at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m., followed by a discussion facilitated by a licensed mental health counselor about youth suicide and depression.


The community-based project is spearheaded by Global Health Equity Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Miles City aimed to improve global health equity through research, advocacy and capacity building.


“The project is designed to help people in the community feel more comfortable talking about mental health issues and provide assistance for those who are depressed and possibly suicidal,” said Matthew Eisen, the Let’s Talk project director. “Really, it’s about creating a culture shift in which suicide and mental illness can be discussed openly.”  


The grassroots efforts aim to address the stigma that surrounds suicide and mental illness by encouraging community dialogue, education and engagement about the topics, he said.


“Suicide is a significant problem in Montana, ranking among the highest suicide rate in the country, particularly among teens,” Eisen said.    


Written and performed by Billings teens, the theatrical scripts are based on a similar GHEF effort in eastern Montana, Let’s Talk Miles City, where a group of teenagers reached out to their peers using theater to address the topics of suicide and depression.


Since the launch of the Miles City community project in 2012, the project’s website has received more than 140,000 site visits, which project coordinator Michelle Strain says is quite significant considering Miles City has a population of less than 9,000.


“This can be an enormous resource to people who are looking for help,” Strain said. “There is a huge need, and the project serves as a place where folks can reach out anonymously to access local and national resources.”


Last spring, the Let’s Talk Billings received a $120,000 grant from the National Institutes for Health to support the project and research regarding its effectiveness. Dr. Sarah Keller, MSU Billings professor and GHEF affiliate, will lead the team of three university researchers.


“A comparison of the pre- and post- project data will give insight as to whether the project increased teen confidence and willingness to access counseling and other prevention resources,” Keller said. “Using creative media to empower youth to speak out about obstacles they face has historically been shown to bring about positive community change,” Keller said.


Strain, who is also a MSU Billings graduate student and part-time instructor, said three groups of Billings students have been rehearsing the performances for about two months.


The performances are directed by MSUB instructors, Patrick Wilson and Ron Garritson, West High drama teacher Myra Nurre and a partnership of international director and actor Jane Lind.


Following the Billings performance, some of the students will go on to perform the scripts in high schools, middle schools and youth centers throughout central and eastern Montana.


“Teens are an inspiration for everybody,” Eisen said. “Being a teen is very difficult these days, so to see them willing to stand up and talk about their own experiences with suicide and mental illness is remarkable.”


The Let’s Talk Billings website will go live following the Jan. 24 performances. The site will list mental health resources and suicide hotlines for Yellowstone County as well as national channels.


The performance is free and open to the pubic. For more information about the project and performance, visit or contact Keller at 406-896-5824.


>  Download performance poster