Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 305

comment
Feeling exhausted, confused? Want to quit your job, maybe leave Whistler? You're not alone. All stressed out in Whistler By Don Anderson Sally Carter pauses over her $1.50 cup of coffee and takes a deep and heavy breath, before carefully reliving the past four years in Whistler. Carter — not her real name — is in her mid-20s and married, has two pre-school aged children, a second mortgage on a 20-year-old condo and a tight budget to go along with it. When the money runs out, as it almost always does before the end of every month, she turns to her credit cards. She knows they're not the answer, but she and her family are determined to continue living in Whistler and credit may be the only way they can do it. "I don't know anyone who lives in Whistler who doesn't have credit cards. Even people who can't really afford to have them need them to get by," she says. Carter came to Whistler with her husband in 1991 with the dream of buying a business, owning a home, having a family and skiing every day. Within months of their arrival, the business deal collapsed and their plans were abruptly derailed. Skiing every day? Not likely. "It's not been the way we expected," says Carter. "We had dollar signs in our eyes. It didn't happen and it was very disheartening. No hard feelings, but..." The Carters weathered that initial shock, albeit in a small, dirty and dilapidated basement apartment they rented for $750 a month. With the help of friends and some "real estate juggling," they managed to purchase a small condominium. Yet they still haven't skied in Whistler. "Last year we considered moving. We were sick of the whole thing. I mean, friends that we made moved away and we felt really isolated, tired of the money situation, working our buns off and not getting anywhere," she says. They've managed to hang in there, but it hasn't been easy. Although they are fond of the resort and its surroundings, there is the question of making a living. Her husband is a tradesman, and he's finding it tough because his clients are not paying their bills. With two young children work is out of the question for Carter. To deal with her own stress she has sought counselling, and according to some local counsellors her story is not so different from that of many other young couples and individuals who have come here in search of the "Whistler dream." Whistler is a young community — 28 being the average age — and it has a problem, say counsellors. While the foundation was being laid for the resort, the community's mental health support beams were somehow misplaced. Without those support beams, Whistler "the community" has fallen prey to stresses more severe than those experienced in towns of similar size. Those stresses — drugs, alcohol, lack of housing and the high cost of living, among others — all add up to one thing: a nervous breakdown. "Mental health, in my mind, is something that we really need to look at," says counsellor Ann-Shirley Goodell. "The lifestyle stresses are incredible. I think a lot of the problem here is we are suffering from a lack of resources." Goodell specializes in counselling company employees, but she has dealt with many young Whistlerites and families who have found themselves at a crossroads. The risk factors for many people living in Whistler, she says, are very high. For families they’re often unavoidable. Consider how much it costs to buy and maintain a home, own a car and feed one's family at North America's number one ski resort, and you will begin to understand why so many people have little choice but to work two or three jobs each to make ends meet. And that is just enough to push some people over the edge. Although referrals are made to Vancouver, and health care services are available in surrounding communities like Squamish, "it's just not enough," says Goodell. "From my own experience from working with stress in the community through the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Program I get a sense that there are real resources needed here," she says. "A lot of the kinds of things we need are not the kinds of programs that we go to Mental Health for, such as more normal stresses within families. We need a response to assist with those stresses but we are very limited in counsellors." When she isn't working for the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts, Goodell divides her time between private counselling and volunteer service. Like many counsellors in the valley, her time is over-booked. The demands are coming from every angle. For young people, it's the challenge of living a Whistler lifestyle that may include renting half a bed for $325 a month, or sharing a room with six other people for $450 a month plus utilities, all the while earning minimum wage at two or more jobs. They may have a degree in business or Masters in literature, but a lot of good that does in a town where people are used to taking on jobs they are typically overqualified for. "I talk to a lot of people. Wherever I am, on a bus or in a restaurant, I talk to people, and you get a sense of the community and what really goes on," says Goodell. "And I think that a lot of people just close their eyes to what is really happening out there." In a survey produced last summer by the Regional Health Board for the Coazst Garibaldi Health Region, substance abuse, car accidents and sexually transmitted diseases were rated as the top health concerns in the region. Of those factors that contributed to stress, finances and work were listed first and second. According to Goodell, many of Whistler's younger residents find themselves alone, afraid and with no one to talk to in times of crisis or depression. Without parental figures or resources close at hand, members of Whistler's twenty-something crowd sometimes finds their resort dream abruptly, and rudely, interrupted by incidents or stresses they are unable to address alone. Where do they turn, where do they go? If they aren't packing their bags, skis, maxed-out credit cards and liquor stained livers for a return trip home, they are turning to Whistler's small collection of overworked counsellors, or whoever will listen to them. And Mary Ann Rolfe has heard it all. "At this time of year we are seeing more depression, what you are talking about in terms of burnout, people are extremely burnt out, marriages are in crisis at this time more than any and it is because of the post-Christmas blues, to some degree," says Rolfe. "This is a time of change for a lot of people." Rolfe has spent four years as a counsellor in Whistler. She spends two days a week serving as the area's alcohol and drug counsellor, while the rest of the week is dedicated to her private practice. While the symptoms are no different than those found in other communities, the stresses are often far more exaggerated. When you are here to work and everyone else is playing, suddenly life just doesn't seem all that fair. And if you're sharing a room with five other people, it can be unbearable. "I see people staying in unhealthy relationships and living in environments because they have no choice," says Rolfe. "People see themselves as being trapped in the winter. Maybe they have to stay in an environment they don't want to be in, but they don't have a lot of control over that. That's the trend that we see in a place with less than zero vacancies." A second area of concern is with families where both parents hold down more than one job while their children spend their days as latch-key kids. Cracks inevitably form in the marriage, and the Whistler dream is quickly eroded. "People up here are really living for 'the dream’," says Rolfe. "Most people want to own a home, most people want to be able to ski 50 times a year, and something's giving. Mental health is probably one of the consequences of that dream. "I see a lot of people who are depressed, just really trapped. They know they should be enjoying life but something is missing." Even though she is a good listener, Rolfe only has two ears and so much time. She's put a cap on the number of clients she can receive. Not by choice, however. "For the first time in four years I did turn people away at Christmas, and I have not done that before. I usually have been able to accommodate people in some way. Even now at this time I need to be careful as to how many new people I can take on." The call for a full-time mental health worker has been out for more than three years, but has gone unanswered. In a time when health care budgets are being slashed, government departments are being downsized and duties doubled up, the dream of addressing Whistler's mental health problems has remained just that — a dream. Instead, it has come down to a handful of individuals dedicated to creating a support structure for residents who sometimes find themselves at wit's end dealing with the abnormalities of the resort lifestyle — individuals like Ele Clarke, co-ordinator for Mountain Community Health Alternatives, who moved here almost six years ago to experience a lifestyle that didn't involve traffic jams, pollution and overcrowding. At first it seemed as if Clarke had found her river of golden dreams. But several years into that experience Clarke began to wonder if her river had been eroded, and her thoughts turned to escaping to quieter climes. "When we came here we knew what housing cost, we knew we would have to live in a suite and were prepared for that, we knew that we would have to get service industry jobs, we were prepared for that," says Clarke. "But we didn't have kids to look after, and we weren't looking for long-term careers, and we were okay with that." It all has to do with expectations, says Clarke, and sometimes newcomers' expectations are not all that realistic. This is a resort town, not a small town, she says. "Everything that is bad that goes on in the world can be found here if you look for it," she says. "And I think that is why people move from here to Pemberton, because they want to get to the small town." Twenty-nine year old Jeff Turner blew into Whistler five months ago from Ontario, full of confidence and enthusiasm. He is leaving feeling frustrated and confounded, his own mountain dream reduced to a mound of rubble. "I came here to ski first, to work second," says Turner. "My employer didn't come through with the pass as promised, and the job just didn't pan out." After couch surfing for an entire month in September he found a place for $550 plus utilities, but it meant sharing a small cabin and one bathroom with five other people. And then came the parties, unexpected overnight guests, and too much drinking, too many drugs, too much of everything. "It wasn't the kind of lifestyle I was expecting, although I had heard stories back East," he says while packing his belongings. "I had already been through university. Once was enough, thank you very much." Turner says it's doubtful he'll ever come back to Whistler, unless he is on vacation. This poses a question: can Whistler ever be a mentally healthy community? Yes, say counsellors, but it's going to take more than just talk to ensure that dream is realized. Governments must respond to the wellness needs of the community. And people have to become aware that there are services available, although they are more limited than what is found in larger centres. "Although we don't have many (programs) and a lot of them are volunteer driven, at least we have something that people can access and should know about," says Goodell. Clarke concurs. "I'm optimistic. There are so many neat, committed people in this community who are willing to volunteer their time toward making things better."

Add a comment