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Mental-health leader finds that advocacy works

by CANDACE CHASEThe Daily Inter Lake
| September 1, 2009 12:00 AM

Matt Kuntz, executive director of Montana's National Alliance on Mental Illness, said no one comes to this organization with uplifting stories, but he brought a positive message about the legislative process to the Kalispell chapter meeting last week.

"It really can work," he said. "I didn't believe that on the day that Chris died."

Kuntz referred to Chris Dana, his stepbrother who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from service in Iraq with the Montana Army National Guard.

Dana killed himself in 2007.

His stepbrother's suicide set Kuntz on a mission to make certain every soldier got screened for the disorder upon demobilization from combat duty. His efforts instigated a program in Montana and then spurred a national screening mandate.

In January, Barack Obama honored Kuntz's efforts with an invitation to ride with him on his whistlestop train tour between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., en route to the presidential inauguration.

Kuntz was one of 18 people rewarded with the ride as everyday Americans who made "extraordinary contributions' to national life. During the train tour, Kuntz met with Obama and his wife, Michelle, as well as Joe Biden.

On Jan. 20, Kuntz and his wife, Sandy, danced on national television at the Neighborhood Ball alongside the Obamas and the other inaugural train invitees. It was a remarkable experience for Kuntz, a former West Point officer and corporate attorney before assuming the NAMI Montana post.

Boyd Roth, outgoing president of the local alliance chapter, took note of its meaning when introducing Kuntz at the meeting at The Summit conference room in Kalispell.

"Matt has the ear of the president and he's right here," he said.

Kuntz drew a substantial audience for his presentation that began with praise for the work of the local chapter in promoting its Family-to-Family Education, a free 12-week course, taught by trained family members, for family caregivers of people with severe mental illness.

"I would have given anything to have taken family-to-family classes," Kuntz said as he described his brother's disorder. "I didn't get that it was a biological brain disorder. The family didn't get it."

He said family members tried their best but failed to save Dana. As an attorney, Kuntz said he attempted to use rational thinking to help with his stepbrother's problem. He learned too late that doesn't work with mental illness.

Dana death in March 2007 ignited a new passion within Kuntz.

"I personally started fighting for better care for retired service members," he said. "The thing I wanted was mandatory screening."

By August 2008, he said the National Guard Bureau described Montana's post-traumatic stress disorder screening program as the best in the country.

Kuntz met with Obama first in 2008 just after the candidate won the Democratic nomination. He said he and others championing post-traumatic stress disorder screening talked to people on the left and right politically who were willing to listen and work with them.

"President Obama did work with us," he said. "He said this program should be nationwide."

Kuntz credited Sen. Ted Kennedy with pushing through the national screening program as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act.

"It's going to save a lot of lives," he said.

Kuntz has just passed his one-year anniversary as executive director of NAMI Montana and two years of advocacy for mental illness. He reviewed other legislative work undertaken, including working for more crisis beds in the state.

"Montana has the highest suicide rate in the country," he said. "Doesn't it make sense to have safe places to take people about to commit suicide?"

He said that advocacy has made many inroads, such as parity for treatment of mental illness by insurance companies as well as within the health care reform debate. Kuntz said NAMI has not backed any particular platform but supports the need for reform.

"No one knows the flaws in the system better than we do," he said.

From his fight for a better system than the one that served his stepbrother, Kuntz brought a new sense of hope that change is possible with enough perseverance.

"I saw good people on both sides work for people who were in trouble," he said.

Anyone interested in joining NAMI in Kalispell may contact Perry Johnson, membership chairman, at 257-7952, or Roth at 471-4483. Kuntz works out of the Helena office at (406) 443-7871.

Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at cchase@dailyinterlake.com.

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