Men’s groups take off on both sides of the Tetons

This comes in the wake of a community tragedy and as men increasingly seek out close-knit groups for emotional support.
Victor resident and Teton Men's Group founder Brian Sweat at the Pink Garter Theater, where he co-hosted a gathering for men to get emotional support in early March. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Eight men sat in chairs in a circle in front of a stage and bright red curtains in early March. They were in the Pink Garter Theater in downtown Jackson, the night’s location for the third official Teton Men’s Group. 

They each were scribbling on torn-off pieces of paper. 

“It’s as simple as that. You write your name, which color you are and toss it in a bucket,” explained Brian Sweat, the group’s founder.

He said that color represents their level of stress on a continuum mode. Green is good, while red’s a crisis.

A print-out of the stress continuum model at the March 4 men’s group. Sweat said these models are used by firefighters and search and rescue responders before they go out in the field. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Sweat said he starts all of the men’s groups like this.

“To kind of get a baseline and record data as we move through these events,” Sweat said, “so two years from now, we can look back and say, ‘Hey, we were averaging somewhere yellow or orange before, and now we’re seeing improvement.’”

Sweat, an even-tempered yogi and software engineer, told the night’s attendees that these events were inspired by a local tragedy last fall. Just over the border in Victor, Idaho, a pregnant woman, Kali Randall, and her toddler were allegedly killed by her husband

For many who knew the couple, including Sweat, this came completely out of left field. And for him, it hit particularly close to home.

“I actually lost a sister the same way a long time ago,” he told the group. “And when this event happened, I started grieving again and reflecting on my life … and asked myself a question: How would my life have been different if I had support, if I had groups of people that I could talk to, especially men, about what I was going through?”

Kali Randall, an avid snowboarder, is seen looking at the view of the Tetons from Grand Targhee Resort. Her husband is now facing three counts of murder charges for the death of Randall, their toddler and their fetus. (Mary Toft)

Sweat said he saw that women often have tight-knit circles to get mental support, so why not men?

According to Jackson’s Mental Health and Recovery Services, men’s mental health is a “silent crisis.” Wyoming has some of the highest rates of suicide in the country, and rates for men in rural areas are particularly high nationwide. 

“Society tells men that we have to be strong. We have to be stoic. We have to be the rock,” Sweat told KHOL. “And at least my experience … is that it’s not always the case. We end up getting lost and confused without the right guidance and support. It’s very difficult to live up to the social standards.”

So, earlier this year, he started holding monthly meetups for men on the Wyoming and Idaho side of the Tetons. It’s not therapy, but a place to be open with one another.

And there’s demand for such a space. At the same time, Jacksonite Will Finnie was launching a similar effort.

“The goal is to give men who maybe are less often feeling the need to, like, communicate about their feelings with each other, a place to do so, and a very specific organized group.” – Will Finnie

Finnie, who has a handlebar mustache and a big, bright smile, said he and a close group of his male friends recently started gathering every other week at each other’s houses to have these kinds of conversations. 

“And you can talk about anything that you’re going through,” Finnie said, “things that are happening with a partner, with work, with life, with anything along your journey.”

He said the structure is slightly different from Sweat’s more public events, but the goal is the same. So, he partnered with Sweat and local comedian Andrew Munz (who’s currently leasing out the Pink Garter for performing arts shows). They all held space for people at the early March event. 

Andrew Munz (left) and Will Finnie (right) at the Pink Garter Theater, where they co-hosted the early March men’s group. Munz led the group in exploring the night’s theme, “alchemy,” or finding ways to shift perspectives. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

“People come and maybe they’re not sure what they’re going to share, and then all of a sudden people start talking and all these things come out and you’re like, ‘Oh, well, these things that I was feeling or maybe not even feeling have like turned and morphed into something totally different,’” Finnie said.

Finnie is all about finding ways to create community, outside of some of the more traditional ways in the area, like in the outdoors. 

“There’s the kind of friends that you go skiing with, friends that you go fishing with,” said Michael Devine, one of the consistent members of Sweat’s groups who works in construction. 

“So I think, talking about more sensitive things in kind of a public setting allows for more of those, just a different level of connection that I think a lot of people don’t have,” he added.

And since starting to share what he’s going through, he’s realized that everyone’s going through similar things.

“For a number of years, I’ve kind of gone through my own personal struggles and struggles with addiction … So I think, for me, and I think a lot of people, being able to share your experiences in the hopes that they help someone else, is also a very powerful part of gathering in this way.” – Michael Devine

Back in the circle, Brian Sweat layed out the ground rules for the night’s event. 

“First rule, most importantly, is everything that is said in this room is confidential,” he started.

Nobody is required to speak, but everyone has the opportunity to talk and get the group’s full, undivided attention.

As they began, Sweat encouraged everyone to come up with a story or issue they’re dealing with.

“Maybe a problem with society, maybe a problem specifically with yourself,” he said. “There’s pens over there. Take a moment. Write something down that you want to share or would like to discuss with the group.”

And with that, the group was scribbling on scraps of paper once again, preparing to share and support each other. 

The next Teton Men’s Group gathering is on April 24 at 6 p.m. in Driggs at Foxtrot Fine Art. All events are free.

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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