James Clark sketches in preparation for his art show in his place of employment as a tattoo artist, Clendenin Customs Tattoo & Gallery. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDSEvery piece of Clark’s artwork was sold during his December 1 show held at Sit & Spin Laundry Lounge. Proceeds are going towards his walk across the country to tackle and talk about mental health. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Take a walk

Local artist plans nation-wide walk, raising mental health awareness each step of the way

Local artist James Clark intends to traverse the United States not by plane, train, automobile, horse or bicycle. He's traveling via his own two feet – and considers every step a movement toward healing.

Ten years ago, Clark read the book “Planet Walker” by environmentalist John Francis, who has spent nearly three decades walking and sailing around the world - a staggering 17 of those years in silence. Clark was inspired and has been considering his own walk ever since. One major difference exists: Clark needs to talk.

Clark’s aim isn't to continue a conversation, because he doesn't believe there is much of one that exists regarding the issue he’s interested in. Rather, he wants to start the conversation: to spread awareness of mental health issues, one interaction at a time. It's already happening. After his sold-out art show at the Sit N' Spin on December 1 – with proceeds going to help with his journey – Clark said he found himself in a few debates, reasoning that occurred because that the taboo topic is uncomfortable for many people.   

Fifteen years of suicidal thoughts and the trauma of living with a lifetime of mental health issues within his family have led Clark down this particular path. He will be trudging across the U.S. with a backpack full of water and food, but a mind full of memories of friends he's lost to suicide and contemplations on mental health struggles of those near and dear to him – including himself.

Clark believes the discussion needs to be normalized – and quickly. The science of the brain and scientifically looking at depression, etc. is relatively new – 50 or 60 years old – he points out. In his ideal world, people will discuss depression and dark thoughts as easily as they do a ski injury; there will be more mental heath workers than bartenders; people will stop self-medicating and start confronting.

“It takes a bit of bravery for when someone wants to talk to you about those (dark) things,” said Clark. “Being sick in your brain is just as relevant as being sick in your body. I don't think a lot of people understand that or choose to realize that. It's completely normal.”

Clark has been in and out of therapy and checked himself into two mental institutions over the years.

“Just knowing that I am not good. I'm not going to kill myself. Having that knowledge in my head of saying life is beautiful and things are great but also fighting that 'everything sucks, kill yourself, this isn't worth it' pressure. I would never let that win,” he said.

After 12 years in Big Sky Clark says he’s found the town is filled with deep thinkers; a place that’s a magnet for brilliant people often trying to escape.

“People come here to find themselves while getting away from the past, and then forget to find themselves, lose themselves, and then the past just becomes an even more prevalent issue with everyday life,” Clark theorized. “ I've had this conversation many times with many people here.”

It was a few years ago that Clark’s thoughts hit a new fever pitch. Always having fought those urges, he knew he needed help. It took five different conversations with him expressing, “Look, I'm really wanting to kill myself,” before someone finally gave him the number of a therapist. She was amazing, he said.

Clark’s life began in Oklahoma City, with a mother who was too mentally ill to be present very often. His siblings were his grounding force and helped him survive. He said he wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for a few teachers and therapists along the way – people who were kind and cared even though he often reacted to their kindness like the angry kid he was.

When he visits his hometown, he feels he's drowning. Friends notice his response and dark depression when he emerges from the city. But, it was there, when speaking on a former bandmate's front porch a month and a half ago –with tears streaming – that he hatched this plan to walk, scatter his pain to the wind and do some good as he goes. This resolve has led to the first feelings of peace and happiness he has known in two years.

Already, just the discussion of his walk is making some things in his family better: ushering in an expanding consciousness of the issue and openness in discussion. Together they are embracing the mentality that it is okay to not be okay.

With the goal of leaving for his walk April 1, he travels back to Oklahoma City this week to start planning and meeting with non-profits to discuss fundraising opportunities. He wants some level of control over where the money he raises goes. If he can't find an organization open to that, then he intends to create his own. His primary goal with the funds is to help the sizable homeless population in Oklahoma City.

He is hoping to organize block parties with other artists, create artwork and play music to raise money for local organizations in the towns and cities he visits during his journey.  He will also be seeking sponsors willing to pay for every mile walked by himself and the people who join him.

“The Universe has always given and provided for me. I've never been without. Now is a good time to give back,” he said.  

Clark has been reading blogs of people who have traversed the nation. He learned of a 65-year-old man crossed the U.S. in 180 days, although his fundraising will be mileage and not time-based. Clark plans on walking through Big Sky and resettling here after his walk is complete.

Ultimately, Clark’s big dream is to become a therapist or teacher: an occupation where he will be unquestionably helping people.

Reach out:
Local and national mental health resources

According to Healthy Gallatin, Montana ranks in the top five states for suicide rates in the nation, and Gallatin County's average suicide rate is 60 percent higher than the national average.

Women in Action Substance Abuse Program in Big Sky
in coordination with Drug and Alcohol Service of Gallatin County
580-6012

WIA Community Counseling Program in Big Sky
in coordination with Montana State University Development Center
570-3907

The Help Center
Crisis Hotline, Counseling Referral Services and Sexual Assault Counseling
406-596-3333

Suicide Prevention Hotline
Local 24 Hour Crisis Hotline
1-800-273-TALK

 

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