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When ski-town life leads to depression

A look at the state of mental health in mountain towns

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Few in search of paradise in ski towns think they will, instead, find the black dog lurking in the woods, waiting to pounce and bring them down. How could these majestic peaks and heritage towns plucked from a Hollywood set bring anything other than joy? 

Yet, for a rising number of people, paradise is the last thing these idyllic communities bring. Depression in ski towns and surrounding valleys is more common than we know, and while some claw their way out, others, sadly end their lives with that same black dog at their throat. 

For many, a season in a ski town is a rite of passage, much like a gap year, before "settling down" and focusing on a career of choice. You look back fondly on your season of pauperism and debauchery, powder, late nights and good times while slaving away at your office job a decade later.

What fun that was, you say, forgetting the cupboard you called home, the dishwasher hands from your night job and frozen fingers from manning the lifts by day. 

Seasonal sadness

For some, the seasonal life becomes the only life, addicted to the high of powder, moving from winter to winter, swapping the vitamin D of summers, and the proven depression-lifting properties of morning sunlight, for short winter days with grey snow-laden skies.

Commitment goes out the window with the friends made each winter that don't return. Peter Pan syndrome gets under the skin as they pursue Never Never Ski Land and eternal youth and happiness through limitless seasons.

They juggle the annual six months of stress finding accommodation for their chosen northern or southern season in towns where the housing crisis means slumlords reign and quality of living goes down. Many share rooms with two, three, sometimes four others. Minimum-wage jobs don't pay enough for a single renter, so you may as well split it amongst strangers.

Then, add drugs and alcohol and see what happens. A Swedish study in 2017 revealed that ski-resort employees had a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse than the general population. The prevalence of "risky consumption" of alcohol was 82.9 per cent among seasonal workers, and 58 per cent among non-seasonal staff. The overall prevalence of risky consumption of drugs in the study sample was 8.3 per cent for seasonal workers and 2.8 per cent among other employees. These numbers would surely not surprise anyone who has spent time in a ski town.

Altitude doesn't help either. Those who already have a predisposition to mood disorders may find themselves in more than just a funk when calling a mountain postal code home. Some research from Utah reveals that those living at 2,000 metres above sea level or higher are at a significantly higher suicide risk than those at sea level. 

Then there's the isolation. Many ski towns are in remote regions of the world with smaller year-round populations and little mental-health support. Traveling to a city takes time away from hourly incomes and those same hourly incomes may mean long days of working to pay the rent on the dump you're now calling home.

The cycle is real and the old saying that you either have two big houses or two jobs in a ski town is dead on.

The Whistler numbers

Whistler's fast-growing population, which increased by 20 per cent from 2011 to 2016, brings its own concerns. The Community Foundation of Whistler's most recent Vital Signs report found that 71 per cent of Whistlerites don't have relatives nearby and 27 per cent spend more time alone than they would like.

Thirty-four per cent say it's hard to make friends, which is no surprise given that 39 per cent have incomes below the living-cost level. Going out costs money and when you don't have it, you stay home—though home may present its own problems with 17 per cent of renters living in overcrowded conditions.

"Resort communities are more at risk for depression simply because they are rural and often lack a hospital, such as in Whistler, where we instead have an urgent-care facility," explains Jackie Dickinson, executive director of the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS). "A lot of people have left their support networks, family, friends, the people who know their stories and history."

Dickinson is lax to suggest that depression in ski towns is on the rise. She believes that the current focus on mental health puts it in the spotlight, which translates into an increase in people seeking help.

"Our frontline outreach team has seen an incredible growth in need since 2013, but that may not be due to a rise in depression, more a rise in population growth and the discussion that Canada is having about mental-health awareness led by campaigns such as the Bell Let's Talk campaign."

More than just Whistler

The ski town of Vail sits in Eagle County, two hours from downtown Denver. In 2017, the county reported 15 suicides. The Roaring Fork Valley where Aspen resides has one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S., and four separate suicides occurred in San Miguel County in 2016 where the pretty, yet isolated ski town of Telluride is found. Even the Sunshine State of California is not immune, with six reported suicides over two and a half years in the Tahoe mountain town of Truckee.

It would appear the American mountains take more than they should, with the mountain states of Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho and Colorado all in the top 10 states for suicide rates per 100,000 residents. 

Don't be fooled into thinking the North American ski towns are the only ones with the mental-health challenges either. In Queenstown, New Zealand, police reported an average of four attempted suicide calls per week in February of last year.

Nineteen people have committed suicide in the Queenstown-Lakes District of New Zealand, home to four ski resorts, since 2012—and 14 of those were in the last three years. 

Ski towns are typically fun places to be, though they are not known for fostering deep-seated connections, given their transient nature, one way to also describe most of the people lured in for a short snow holiday or by the temptation of a powder-filled season. Finding connection can be fleeting in a constant world of goodbyes.

The macho nature of the male-dominated snowsport industry, where risk brings instant reward on a daily basis, means few feel they can speak of their fear, reveal their vulnerability and expose the darkness that may reside within themselves. Men over the age of 30 are also more vulnerable to mental-health struggles in ski towns, especially when injured, as they lose that regular connection to skiing and snowboarding.

As a press release from Vail Resorts' charitable foundation revealed: "In surveys conducted in the resort communities by various organizations, many residents indicated they don't know where to turn for help if they have a mental health issue and if they did know where to turn for help, frequent barriers such as cost, perceived stigma and language prevented them from seeking treatment." 

And, all the while, the irony is that what we think will fix the black-dog blues, skiing or snowboarding, is the very thing contributing to it. It's only so long before fatigue kicks in—and with adrenal burnout comes depression, anxiety and exhaustion. We may be high on the mountains, but we can come crashing down when the chairlifts close.

What gives?

So now that we know what the numbers are for mental health in ski areas, now that we know what the risk factors are, how do we address it? What is the solution to helping those with shattered dreams and mounting debts, isolation and a lack of connection?

Services help, education helps, reaching out to those with depression helps. Seasonal businesses should be offering support and training for all employees to notice when others are struggling and how to help when they are. 

Ski towns need to desperately address the housing crisis, and many are. Aspen is experimenting with tiny homes, Vail and Whistler Blackcomb are building employee housing, and Queenstown has put forth an Airbnb tax to reduce the number of days locals can put their residences into the nightly-rental pot in an attempt to encourage more long-term rentals.

Colorado's pot tax is funding mental-health initiatives (that's what you call irony given the research on adolescent males and marijuana-induced depression). Other programs such as Aspen Strong in Colorado and Mental Health Week in Canada are shining spotlights on the issues with resources and meetups. 

Many believe connection is the key to keeping depression at bay, though once the black dog grips you, it is nigh on impossible to actually want to see anyone. The sense of isolation in seasonal ski towns can be a mental barrier to overcome—and that's before the black dog has you wanting to stay in bed with the curtains closed.

The WCSS moved to its new location at 8000 Nesters Road last year, effectively making its outreach program more visible in a non-clinical setting. Normalising mental health as a wellness initiative is imperative to reducing the shame stigma that often surrounds mental illness.

"Our services are free to access," says Dickinson. "If you need more support than what we offer then we work as an advocate to navigate the system for you and more targeted psychologist or counselling services are reduced from $150 to $35. This helps make support more accessible."

When the black dog has you, it is hard to function, to shower, to clean your teeth, wash your clothes, make a piece of toast.

Being heard is integral to surviving the dark days, not being judged, not being told what to do, being heard or simply having someone sit with you through the silence, to let you know you are OK.

If you need help in a crisis, call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566, or the BC Crisis Line at 1-866-661-3311. For further information about suicide prevention, depression and mental health visit crisisservicescanada.ca or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust. For more info on Whistler Community Services Society's outreach program, call 604-932-0113 or visit mywcss.org.

A version of this article originally appeared in Snowsbest on Sept. 8, and can be viewed at snowsbest.com/ski-town-depression-suicide.

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