Why Are Ski Towns Seeing More Suicides?

A winter storm lifts off Ralph Lauren's ranch below the Sneffles Range near Telluride, Colorado; Photograph by Ben Knight
A winter storm lifts off a ranch below the Sneffles Range near Telluride, Colorado. Photograph by Ben Knight

On a sunny morning in early March, Tom Slocum, a 57-year-old ski bum in Telluride, Colorado, walked up Tomboy Road, a popular hiking route that winds above the north side of town. An avid athlete and skier, Slocum moved to Telluride in 1984, a couple of years after graduating college. Like many ski town residents, he’d worked several jobs over the years, in hotels, mostly. Over the last five or so years, he’d grown frustrated with his life—presumably by the fact the he was a middle-aged man living in a small caretaker’s unit behind a multimillion dollar home, struggling to get by in one of the country’s most idyllic ski towns.

As he’d grown into middle age, his body had begun to break down, and he wasn’t able to enjoy all of the activities that had once brought him so much joy, such as dropping into the steep, hike-to chutes on Gold Hill. Ten years earlier, two of his brothers had died within months of each other, which affected him deeply. Then, his aging parents’ health took a turn for the worse. The support he needed to navigate this difficult stretch of life, in the form of affordable counseling or publicly funded mental health services, is hard to come by in Telluride. In recent years, Slocum began to isolate himself and his sadness started to spiral.

About a mile up Tomboy, Slocum pulled over and sat down next to a small creek. From his perch above Telluride, he looked out at the majestic San Juan Mountains, which towered above the 2,000-person town and its pastel Victorians. Across the valley, the Bear Creek basin etched up the east side of the resort and disappeared into a playground of snow-capped peaks. Then, just after dawn cast its first rays, Slocum pulled out a handgun and shot himself.

Slocum’s death was the first of three suicides that occurred in San Miguel County over two weeks in late February and early March. Then, in May, a 46-year-old skier widely regarded as one of the best riders in the San Juans, took his life. The rash of self-inflicted deaths boosted the county’s rate of suicide by firearms over the past 12 months to more than six times higher than the national average.

But Telluride isn’t alone. The number of suicides in Aspen, Colorado, is three times the country’s mean rate. Utah’s Salt Lake County, home to Alta and Snowbird, has almost twice as many suicides as the national average. And six suicides over two and a half years in Truckee, California, prompted the community to launch a suicide task force in 2014. Though tourists from around the world flock to these locales to ski their slopes and ride their single track, paradise harbors a darker reality: Resort town residents are taking their lives at alarming rates.

Despite the fact that western states like Colorado and Utah routinely appear on “Best Places to Live” lists (here’s just one), the intermountain region has long had a problem with suicide. In the United States, 40,000 people a year take their lives and nowhere, aside from Alaska, is the rate of suicide higher than in the Rocky Mountains. Wyoming ranks first in the nation for suicide, with a rate that’s more than twice the national average (and more than three times higher than New York’s). Montana, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Idaho consistently place in the top ten, earning the Rocky Mountain states a morose moniker: the Suicide Belt.

A quiet Telluride back-alley lacks the polish of vacant near-by multi-million dollar vacation rentals during what locals refer to as "mud season." Photograph by Ben Knight
A quiet Telluride back alley lacks the polish of vacant nearby multimillion-dollar vacation rentals during what locals refer to as “mud season. Photograph by Ben Knight

The Paradise Paradox

Experts chalk up the West’s high suicide rate to a host of factors that include a culture of rugged individualism, access to firearms, lack of mental health care, and the isolation that results from communities and homes spread across wide swaths of land. Indeed, these factors likely have a role in resorts’ high suicide rates, but there are also social, financial, cultural, and even geographical issues unique to ski town life that may also be at play.

First off, these towns are expensive and the disparity between the wealthy and the working class is dramatic. The median sales price of a home in Aspen is $836,000, while the estimated per capita income is $58,703. “As a tourist, when you visit a mountain town, you play, and you enjoy yourself,” says Abraham Nussbaum, M.D., chief education officer at Denver Health whose research focuses on suicide and schizophrenia. “As a citizen, you find that to make a living in one of these towns you often have to work two, three, four jobs, and often have to live in small, crowded, expensive places to survive in an economy that’s really designed for people spending large sums of money on a vacation.”

What’s more, the economy is largely seasonal, which means when one season ends, the scramble to find off-season work or a job for next season begins. These financial issues place enormous stress on individuals, families, and relationships. As a result, there are a disproportionate number of divorces and breakups in mountain towns, according to Roy Holloway, chaplain of the Aspen Fire Volunteer Department, who operates an emergency suicide hotline. “There’s so much wealth here and so much separation between the haves and have nots. Marriages fail so often because people can’t afford to live here, relationships fail, and it’s acceptable. There’s a different set of values when it comes to relationships,” he says, touching on another issue—the fact that there’s less social pressure for relationships to stay together.

On top of that, due to the transient nature of these resort communities, their social makeup is often more tenuous. Residents lack intergenerational relationships and deep social attachments, which are protective against suicide. That means that, when faced with issues, people have less support. “They’ve moved away from their natural support systems, and they have to rebuild a support system,” says Michael H. Allen, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Depression Center. “Again, because of the seasonal nature of these towns, it can be hard to do that. People’s jobs change frequently, the players change frequently, and so the social fabric is just not as stable as it would be in the city.” In other words, there’s a lot of volatility inherent to ski town life and less support to help people ride the waves.

In addition, there’s less participation in the groups and activities that typically knit communities together. “For the most part, when you look at the risk factors for Colorado ski towns, most of the markers of social cohesion, things like attendance at religious service, membership in community organizations, how long someone’s lived there—they tend to be lower than other places in the state,” Nussbaum says. So while some people might be forging friendships over powder turns, others might be struggling to find ways to connect with others.

Deidre Ashley, executive director of Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, believes all of these factors are at play in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she’s seen a recent uptick in suicides. “People come here, they try to set up a life, and it’s probably not what they expected,” she says. “They’re isolated from their families, their support systems, and there’s a huge financial crisis that creates stress on people, with seasonal work, the housing shortage, the price of rentals, and just the cost of living in general.”

And the mere notion of living in paradise can amplify one’s feelings of depression and isolation. “People have ideas of how things should be,” says John McIntosh, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend. “If you live in an environment that’s interpreted or seen as perfect, that may in fact lead you to feel even worse when you don’t feel good in that environment, and you may feel an even greater personal toll as a result.”

Good weather can also exacerbate feelings of depression, and suicides peak in the spring and summer months. “You’re holding out for spring during the winter, which is tough in many environments,” McIntosh says. “You make it through, and it’s supposed to be better, but you get to spring and it’s not better. As a result of that, it may be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Holloway’s observations in Aspen back up this notion. “We have a season for suicide, and we are in that season. It’s the spring. The season goes by and people think, ‘I didn’t meet the girl of my dreams. I got laid off. I don’t have any more money. I’m embarrassed, and I don’t want to tell my family that I didn’t succeed.’” Looking at the suicides in Telluride, it’s probably not a fluke that they occurred during a spell of unseasonably warm, spring-like weather.

Business as usual as a dense winter storm blankets Telluride's Colorado Avenue; Photograph by Ben Knight
Business as usual as a dense winter storm blankets Telluride’s Colorado Avenue; Photograph by Ben Knight

The Highs and Lows of Altitude

Then there’s the issue of substance use and abuse. Most ski towns have an unabashed partying culture and social life often hinges on alcohol. Is it a coincidence that Montana and Colorado, which currently rank third and sixth in the nation for suicides, also claim some of the highest incidence of substance abuse in the country? Probably not. “There’s definitely more substance use in mountain towns,” Allen says. “That’s OK for many people, but there will be some people who are more vulnerable to the effects of substances, either to the acute effects or to the effects of becoming addicted, so substance use is definitely a factor in the increased incidence of suicide.” According to Mental Health America, substance abuse is likely a factor in half of all suicides, and the lifetime rate of suicide among people with alcohol problems is at least three to four times the average.

Another factor complicating the matter is the way altitude affects brain chemistry. A 2014 study by the University of Utah found a link between altitude, depression, and suicide rates. “At altitude, you get a pretty marked reduction in your serotonin levels. Low serotonin has of course been associated classically with mood and anxiety disorders,” says Perry Renshaw, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, who led the 2014 study. According to Renshaw’s work, the higher you go, the more likely it is that you’ll end your life by suicide. “In Salt Lake City, we estimate that we have a 30 to 40 percent higher suicide rate just based on our altitude than is the case for someone living at sea level.”

Muddying the brain chemistry equation even further is the fact that altitude also increases the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a part in pleasure seeking and risktaking behaviors. So while altitude diminishes serotonin reserves, it ramps up dopamine­. Because of this, the average person might experience amplified feelings of enjoyment, which might explain why life in the mountains sometimes feels sweeter, while someone with a mood disorder might feel intensified mood swings, which can be deadly for someone with an illness such as bipolar disorder.

Though people commonly say suicide is a cowardly act, at its heart it’s also a bold one. Dopamine drives risktaking behavior, and if dopamine levels are indeed enhanced the higher one goes, it follows that people may be more likely to take risks at altitude. On top of that, higher-altitude locales select for risktakers due to their access to outdoors pursuits. “There are people who enjoy taking risks, who are relatively fearless, and who are more capable of making a serious suicide attempt than other people under the right circumstances. It’s likely that migrating to the mountains involves taking some risk and mountain towns tend to attract and support those kind of people and that trait,” Allen says. In other words, the mechanisms that drive someone to take risks in the mountains may also be the same ones that make it easier to take the final leap.

No one can ever truly know what lies in another person’s heart—what causes one man to look out over the San Juans and feel awe and another to feel desperation. It’s not one event that tips a person from life to death but instead a lifetime of experiences and circumstances that culminate in one fateful, irreversible choice. For many, the mountains offer salvation. Who hasn’t felt peace wandering through a high-alpine field of wildflowers or the sublime high that comes with tagging a 14er?

But faced with the number of people taking their lives in ski towns, it’s important to acknowledge that these idyllic locales breed a particular kind of malaise. In order to stem this terrible tide, we must bring the issue out from the dark and into the light. In doing so, we should strive to understand how we can support the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. But in the mean time, rents will continue to climb, relationships will crumble, people will lose their jobs, and many will wonder if the ski town dream is all that it’s cracked up to be. “It’s a resort town and people think, ‘Wow, it’s so beautiful. I can’t imagine people having any problems here,’” says Deidre Ashley. “But paradise comes at a price, definitely.”

For help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org

 

Comments

  1. admiralbrown
    Central Connecticut
    May 17, 2016, 8:31 am

    Just like the article stated, disparity of income. Someone who is young and wants to follow a dream of skiing spends their life skiing and working low wage jobs to get by financially. Meanwhile they see the very rich come and spend idle time skiing and spend money as if they have an infinite supply. There has to be a lot of jealousy. Then one day you realize your dream is over, you can’t ski as well as you did before and you are only getting older. You have no marketable job skills and money and saved nothing for retirement, You wonder how you got to this place.
    The real solution is to admit your life plan wasn’t as good as you thought it was and to try to get help. The easy route is to end you life, but that is just your last bad decision.

  2. idahobobb
    idaho
    May 17, 2016, 8:42 am

    this life is all too familiar to me..i live it everyday. thanks natgeo for letting me know im not alone

    • Mary Anne Potts
      May 17, 2016, 3:07 pm

      You are definitely not alone! And thanks for the comment.

  3. Dean
    Where The Buffalo Roam
    May 17, 2016, 11:50 am

    Have an old and dear friend who lives at 7,000+ ft and has had these issues for years. Alcoholism, depression, suicidal thoughts, moodiness and an inability to sustain relationships. Had never considered that all of this might be aggravated by where she lives.
    I worry about her every day but she has now pushed me away too.
    Good article and very eye opening as I had no idea the Rockies had such a higher than normal rate of suicides.

  4. Dee Ann
    Seattle, Washington
    May 17, 2016, 4:12 pm

    What a sad and eye-opening article. Even though I don’t ski, I lived in Sun Valley for 4 years from the age of 25-29. I had vacationed there & fell in love with the beauty. Due to my skill set, I was fortunate to work for a large engineering firm. But, like the article points out, many work seasonal/odd jobs to support their lifestyle – I thought it sad to see older people, 35-40+ always drunk, or stoned, living the “play hard, party hard” lifestyle. It now makes sense that once you reach a certain age & realize that you have nothing, have only superficial friends with no real support system, not seeing anything changing, that suicide would be tragic way out for some. The disparaging gap between the wealthy and the working class is eye-opening and makes a lot of sense. Depression is an ugly, dark, scary health issue – I know because I deal with it every day, add struggling to live, and eat and my heart goes out to those who feel it’s their only way to end their pain. Even if there are organizations in these areas, it takes a rather independent person to up & head out for “the dream” – making it difficult for them to admit that they have a problem & to seek help. Such a tragic, and sad article.

  5. jb
    Telluride, co.
    May 17, 2016, 4:55 pm

    One of my best friends hung herself, yesterday, 3 years ago. It is a serious problem in the mountains. I have lived at 9000′ for 30 years. I too moved here directly out of college. I am a Mtn person, risk taker, and I too feel that stress about these towns, and trying to fit in, or to get by. Certain people should never live in a ski town. It is all your mindset about life. Thank you for a good report! Guns are not the main cause of suicide here, it’s just a different world than the rest……….

  6. Beth
    Chico, CA
    May 17, 2016, 7:42 pm

    National Crisis Hotline by text is saving lives daily: 741741 Anyone can text it with any word or thought, and a loving professional will connect instantly with you. Stay – this world needs you!

  7. foggysunset
    foggy california coast
    May 17, 2016, 10:24 pm

    I graduated from Aspen High School way back when (1970s). Aspen was and is an absolutely beautiful spot, but even back then many teachers couldn’t afford to live in town (they commuted from Carbondale), the schools comprised an awkward mix of smug old-timers and transient families (including my own), and the town itself was an odd mix of tourist-season rich-&-famous and year-round locals. Despite the beauty, Aspen felt like a strange bubble, unconnected to the real world. I was incredibly relieved to get out of town (and state) for college.

  8. Wyskiboat
    WY
    May 17, 2016, 11:49 pm

    This all hits home in Jackson Hole. The community isn’t strong, the wealthy ‘landed’ locals (businesses and realtors) angle for every last bit of tourist market share, the workers needed to run their businesses aren’t paid enough to afford rent, there is not enough space for people to live, those in control do their best to prevent residential development (97% of the land is government owned or protected from development in Teton County) unless it’s big money hotels or billionaire vacation housing, and there’s a steady stream of people trying to make it work who eventually fail. They have lived in the community for years, sometimes decades, but their ‘plans’ fade and the community becomes less inclusive by the year, leaving an ugly survival-of-the wealthiest environment. I fear for working-class children growing up in this supposed ‘community’, as the odds are they will have to move to a far less idyllic places to have any hopes for home ownership or work.

    Reading all the inescapable contributing factors in this article are enlightening, nevertheless. More light needs to be shed on this issue.

  9. Aspen Local
    Aspen, CO
    May 18, 2016, 12:02 am

    I have lived in Aspen for 18 years. It was a choice I made based on a convergence of things I did and did not want in my life for the long term and those points still stand to this day. I was 30 when I moved here, had and still have a career that is unique even to this area. I also did not buy into the party scene here which is considerable. I have watched people come and go, get into the scene only to be practically spat out the other end to land on their rears wondering what on earth happened. So now approaching age 50, I know for a fact that if I did not have a great marriage and a fantastic career, I would likely leave for a much more community centric Colorado mountain town or perhaps somewhere else. You are young, you have vision, you plan, some plans work, some don’t. And then you age and what you have left if you are lucky is your health, some wisdom, some friends and family and maybe even a good career and a good partnership with someone you love dearly. If not and you are one of those who works 2-4 jobs, maybe even still parties beyond age 45 and has a tough time keeping a good relationship, you are very exposed to self deprivation from an emotional standpoint.

    So where I am going with all of this is that even before social media, the affects of Fear of Missing Out or “FOMO” as it is called were real and present contributing factors in how welcome or cared for a person actually feels in a tightly knitted ski resort town were already making people feel like crap if they were not part of the in crowd or that cool kid circle. Now with social media making this effect felt across far more communities, the overall effect of this in a ski resort is now, in my opinion, highly amplified. And more people are taking their lives because of this and all the other points made in this article. I have known too many people who have taken their lives here, it sends ripples through the community and while we all feel like we are trying to do better at caring for one another in the immediate aftermath of a loss, it might be time for a total change of how we actually promote life here in this town and how that backward facing pressure is really making us all feel.

    I don’t have the answers but I do feel that we ought to be asking a lot more questions. Take care of each other folks, we all need to.

  10. Sandra James
    Tahoe City, CA
    May 18, 2016, 12:04 am

    Hard hitting article but all too true.

    I have lived in mountain towns for 40+ years. I’ve watched my friends that aren’t local, raise families, buy and sell houses, amass wealth while I struggled to pay rent in a house that I’ve lived in for more than 30 years. The landlord raises the rent every few years yet does nothing to improve the location or to do basic repairs. I am unable to complain as the housing shortage is so awful that if he wanted to he would just evict me and I’d be in dire circumstances. I told myself, it’s a trade off, live in paradise – poor and paycheck to paycheck – or in the city where I could make money. I’ve survived. With great fortitude. On my own.

  11. HEATHER
    Canada
    May 18, 2016, 12:16 am

    Thank you so very much for this timely article.

  12. Me
    Oregon
    May 18, 2016, 12:20 am

    I lived in two of these towns mentioned for two years each. Although the scenery was beautiful and the recreation abundant, I have never been so lonely in my life. The people who live in these places are so caught up in their quest to be the best skier, snowboarder, mountaineer etc.that they don’t care about relationships. With the amount of money you have to make to “fit in” the social scene, the was no real chance of making friends. I live in a beautiful, large home in Oregon but there I was considered, by their standards, as poor. I have lived in many states and many more cities and have never experienced the struggles I did there. People are turning to suicide because they are lonely, relationships with others that love and care about you are key.

  13. Brett McNary
    United States
    May 18, 2016, 12:46 am

    This article brings up some interesting points. I would like to see some peer reviewed studies that prove altitude truly does lower serotonin and raise dopamine.
    One major point that this article left out is this. You have to look at the reason people move to a ski town. I think a high percentage of people who move weren’t happy where they were and ran from it in a last ditch effort to be happy. In the process they gave up commitments, careers and educational degrees. Many ski towns are at the end of a road, and a lot of ski towns ARE the end of the road for certain people. I do think this correlation is processed when you ask a woman about 10-1 male/female ratios in ski towns. “The odds are good, but the goods are odd” is a common phrase. After living in ski towns for 25 years, I’ve drawn these parallels.

  14. Robyn
    Truckee, California
    May 18, 2016, 1:46 am

    Moving “out west” had been a dream of mine for ten years, since I began teaching skiing at twenty. I lived in the Northwestern Lower Peninsula of Michigan for most of my life. At thirty years old I had a spiritual awakening and decided it was time to actualize that dream. I was the happiest and most fulfilled I’d ever been. I made a plan, saved money, and packed up my things. After traveling for a month I chose the Lake Tahoe Area, (in September 2015,) because I’m a fresh water girl. Plus, I love to ski & snowboard!

    Shortly after settling in, about two months, I began to wonder what happened to that beautifully awakened woman I became just ten months ago. But wait, I was just the happiest I’ve ever been! I was just on top of my own world. I finally figured out that I have the ability to fill my own heart up. I traveled alone for a month, I slept in my car, I asserted myself, I survived Burning Man, I’m here in the mountains about to ski my face off, I didn’t stop to ask for financial assistance. I’m here, I’m showing up, I’m living my “dream”, I’m a bad ass independent woman.

    Then why after all that did I feel a deep slump, a wall, a fog, a barrier to my wealth of self love? Adjustment period, okay, I get it, I lived within 2-4 hours of my family and support my whole life. Another few months, still a flat line. As a “good” Midwestern girl I’m not a partier; preferring art, adventure, books, deep conversation, writing, and yoga. I cured my depression last year with abundant self love practices that actually worked. I wasn’t feeling a resurgence of depression, I was feeling something different. Flat line, similar, yet somehow different. Aware, clear, focused, but flat. Relationships in this town feel much different than home as well, less committed and more surface level. Men and women seem more guarded and take far longer to open up.

    So now it’s been seven months, it’s May. I finally found my own studio but don’t tell my 10+ friends currently searching, I feel blessed and guilt at the same time. I found a new sustainable year round job, again SHHH!! As I wake up every morning I kick my own a$$ into showing up to do my part. I write every morning, eat healthy foods, go to work grateful, bike & hike daily, and I go home tired and feeling rewarded. I’m showing up for my spiritual practice by meditating and doing yoga and guess what, heart centered people have seen me all along. Now that it’s spring they’re starting to emerge from their snow caves and I’m making deeper connections, some are even seeking me out. Awesome!!!

    Yes, the altitude might be battling with my brain. Yes, people are still winning metals in partying,(a joke I actually heard here). And yes, everything’s expensive and the tourists could care less. The important thing though… I am showing up. I am shining my light. I recognize everyone is doing their best and our best always looks different. As long as we keep shining and setting that example of love and light there is hope. I would know, I’ve experienced the dark.

    May we all be blessed and continue to SEND IT!❤️

  15. Dee
    United States
    May 18, 2016, 6:21 am

    I lived in Estes Park, Colorado. Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. My neighbor and I would listen to his police scanner anytime we were in his home.
    We’d hear of at least… at least one suicide/suicide attempt per week. Usually more than one. Then, around the holidays, that number would jump. The month I moved away from Estes, one of the old mountain men in town killed himself.
    People get married there. Some people have been visiting Estes every year since they were born. Others find Estes/RMNP to be the most beautiful place they have ever been.
    So.. some of those people want to end their lives there.
    Relationship problems, terminal diagnoses, hermit reasons, and some, we never know why..
    But people LOVE to die in Estes Park/RMNP.

  16. […] Why are ski towns seeing a rise in suicides? Since many MUT communities share space with ski towns, is it a problem with our sport too? […]

  17. Mike
    Jackson, WY
    May 18, 2016, 10:21 am

    Beautiful article, hard hitting indeed but spot on. One thing you touched on is lack of mental health care in these communities. I took me 3 weeks to get an “intake” appointment with the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center and now another 3-4 weeks before I will be able to speak with a psychologist. For someone truly in pain, feeling the weight of living in a ski town this might be a bit too long..

  18. GeographyofOutdoorRec&Psych
    Jackson Hole
    May 18, 2016, 10:51 am

    This message is for all you EAST COAST IMPLANTS. It is you who is putting pressure on the town and depleting it of it’s natural economic cycle. We have had generations of families living and establishing this area and now all these implants are taking over forcing locals out of town and out of businesses they’ve been running for long stretches of time. You are taking up the once empty spaces of Wyoming with you drug and alcohol ridden antics. You come here to try to make a name for yourself, it’s all about YOU. You don’t come here to try to make a difference for anyone else b/c if you did you would realize the crisis in JH and would stay home. We don’t need more wanna-be’s or stinky servers…please.

  19. John
    Carbondale, CO
    May 18, 2016, 11:42 am

    I just took a job in Aspen and moved to Carbondale. Y’all are tripping me out, but im glad I read this now. I sometimes struggle with depression, at least I’ll know how to react if I feel a certain way…

  20. Uncle Lou
    Reno NV
    May 18, 2016, 11:54 am

    I lived in Truckee for 16 years…the sense of Community is closed to outsiders . If You weren’t born or high schooled there You’re not considered or treated like a local.
    Some accept You, others do not. So, You can relate to the feeling of emptiness or not belonging.
    But every resort Town NEEDS the Workers who clean their rooms, serve & cook their food and plow their driveways.
    So, maybe these Communities should have special appreciation days for the local workers Who struggle to make ends meet, year-round. Or maybe, raising the minimum wage to something at least NEAR the poverty level would help…just sayin’.

  21. Jayma
    Crested Butte, CO
    May 18, 2016, 12:07 pm

    First of all, I do not advocate Psychiatry. Taking drugs is not the answer of all holy answers. I went down that path and it led to further misery. Getting to the root of the problem entailed a search that kept leading me to more and more profound release from a state of ‘depression’. This is not an advertisement for Dianetics, but that is what ultimately turned my life around. Having access to new and different thought- outside of the sheltered little mountain town was crucial to my recovery. If I would have stayed there- I probably would be dead. I knew that in my bones somehow, and so I left. I did find answers that were not available in the isolation of the place. BUT!!!! Wow, someone finally said it. This article. The statistics. Yep. …. when my life truly fell apart in CB in 2006, for reasons not entirely out of my control, but extremely harsh, nonetheless (being stuck in a very abusive relationship- having a very young child, going through a horrific divorce) — not only did I not receive support from the MAJORITY of the other parents at my son’s school— I received backstabbing gossip, ridicule and ostracizing judgement. I threatened their little delusion of their ‘perfect life’. I’m still wounded from how I was treated by the gormandizing, sybaritic exclusion. And obviously still angry. …… Migrating to a ‘rougher’ area- to heal, where there were people with harsher realities than me, … like an inner city area, where kids, legit, had no food to eat at home… actually helped me. Other people were more kind, helpful and inviting. INCLUSIVE. They knew what having a rough go of it felt like. O, living in the ‘shire’. Yes, some aloof- fantasy of people acting out there own self-absorbed, selfish dominance with attachment and true connections being low on the list. Being in Crested Butte was pretty gruesome because a lot people we unwilling to ‘go deep’. To demonstrate a loyalty that actually resembled a REAL support system. I had to eeek out love and security from a community group very carefully- as to not disturb the facade I was required to carry in order to NOT be excluded from the libertine attitude of the hype of ‘coolness’. and A ‘spiritual path’—? …. how many churches/temples, groups or outlets for ‘spiritual learning’? Not a lot of resources in that vein, other than a cold and pedantic ‘mental health’ division at the hospital. The river-rat nomads were the closest thing to a tribe I could find and I was blessed to have found other injured souls that had risen above, that could understand my hardship. I had to leave to find a softer situation that would help me find answers to my sorrows. I speculated that there were many more like me, that were in the same boat of saddness that simply could not be of support, because, they too were simply trying their best to survive. (They had nothing let to give. Trapped in a similar predicament.) *There were a few that actually reached out to me and tried to shelter me from the storm. Most of them were perusing some kind of spiritual practice with enough resolve to have the strength to share their values- a sincere smile or a loving ear. I’m grateful to them. You were one, Molly Anne Long.

  22. John
    Stowe VT
    May 18, 2016, 12:43 pm

    Very good article. I think you put too much emphasis on guns. That said, I wonder if this holds true here in Vermont.

    It would be interesting to see if this holds true in Chamonix. There you have many ski-bums that can’t even work there legally.

  23. ruth
    Oregon
    May 18, 2016, 1:52 pm

    Those opinions all sound reasonable to the casual reader. We believe to have more is to be happy and to have less is to want more, to envy, fall short and be unhappy. In fact, it is highly likely that the reasons for which people chose to live in those states and how they self select the geography is the genesis of the problem. Data on happiness show there is little correlation between income level and happiness. Instead, There is much to be learned about those rugged individuals who assess their lives and decide to stop. It is part of being a rugged individualist that you take action on those things which are important to you.

    The accurate information on why suicide is available. Scientific research on those who suffer all the listed possible causes who don’t commit suicide will render a much better understanding of why people do… certainly much better data than politically correct finger pointing and professorial opinions based on assumptions that simply are not born by the facts.

    Suicide is a complex behavior and each event may be prompted by different causes. We simply don’t know and opinions don’t count.

  24. phillipe knippel
    Brasil
    May 18, 2016, 1:53 pm

    Wow! I am from Rio, Brazil and i didnt know bout that..
    Sending good vibes to these people. Stay in a fuc**** cold place and no human warm, for me, brazilian, it can be the death, for real.

  25. Ana Smith
    Emmentahl Switzerland
    May 18, 2016, 2:36 pm

    I was born in Denver in the ’60’s, and grew up with the mountains as my back yard. I have lived in several mountain towns (and I still do, just on a different continent). While I would agree that the lack of a communal society is of great importance. People in mountain towns love to flash their “cool card” and want proof that you are “cool enough” to be a member of their society. In most circles it’s a constant pissing war to see who has made the very most of their day, and no one ever commits to any social invitation, because something much cooler might show up at the last minute.

    Most of the people I ever met who moved to mountain towns may have been great skiers, amazing mountain bikers. or some other “super talent”, but the thing I found they had most in common, was their very deep insecurities. They left where ever they came from because of SOMETHING.

    While everyone says they want to come live in a mountain town because of the easy going lifestyle, (which did exist for a time, different times for different towns,) they brought with them the baggage of their former lives, and thought they could ski it away. Or pretend that they were cool enough that it didn’t matter.

    Mountain living is tough. There are great rewards for those who know what the true value of a solitary life is. It’s not about how cool you are. And there are very few people living “the dream” that actually understand that.

    I would call the altitude segment a lot of hoohhaw. The days of sunshine far outweigh any detrimental effects of altitude, after all most folk aren’t living at much more than 8,000-9,000 ft. Living in the Pacific Northwest is far more detrimental to mental and physical health than at 8,000 ft. Unless you don’t get out and shovel your deck out.

  26. Mike
    Bozeman
    May 18, 2016, 3:13 pm

    Wow this hits the nail on the head!! Thanks Guys!!

  27. Wolf Pup
    United States
    May 18, 2016, 3:35 pm

    This is an incredibly well written and thought out article. If you’ve lived in a ski town, you can relate to a lot of the truths. A ski town ruined my marriage and has made life for my kids challenging because their mother chooses to stay in a ski town and pretend its a real/normal life – all so she can be a rad mountain chick. Great article, thank you.

  28. Mountain Mama
    Telluride, CO
    May 18, 2016, 6:34 pm

    Just today I ended a business meeting with a young woman to ask if she would have her boyfriend check in on a friend of the gentleman who just took his life here. Yesterday I talked with another friend whose cousin is on suicide watch with ailments that ebb and subside on and off over many years since his own mothers suicide. A friends 12 year old son has been exhibiting huge frustration as he tries to grapple with this strange “epidemic” of suicides in our community. My own nephew who suffers mental illness grapples with his sense of guilt that his own mother took her life four years ago leaving him in a seemingly impossible maze of guilt, sadness, anger, fear and frustration.

    I worked on a project for suicide prevention for several years targeting “Survivors of suicide” – Friends, family and community members of folks who commit suicide are at an even higher risk than the general population for suicide themselves. So pick up the phone, drop by, check in regularly on your fellow community members and survivors. You can straight up ask someone if he or she is considering suicide. Many folks are afraid to ask. Take the risk to get involved. You may save a life. Love to everyone who is actively caring. Love to all who are suffering. Thanks fora great article.

  29. Natalie
    MD United States
    May 18, 2016, 6:43 pm

    Lived in the mountains of Colorado for 3 years after college. Had lots of fun, worked many jobs to get the ski pass, the access to the medical center, bars to get tips. Was lucky to work for owners who cared about their employees and created a family of locals…holiday celebrations, baseball teams, a regular calendar of events for everyone to participate. When the local ski industries bought all the privately owned businesses we lost that “family/community” feel. Partying is the local sport and many get caught up in drinking and drugs.The ski towns don’t fund programs that help local families be a part of a community. It took Aspen years to figure out they needed employee housing…the rich couldn’t come play if the resorts didn’t have the…cooks, wait- staff, housekeepers, wood cutters, grocery stockers, cashiers, lifties, snow plow operators, trash pickup, etc. to pamper the tourists. The resorts need to do more to create stable neighborhoods that generations stay in. If you don’t have the community infrastructure then your seasonal tourist town fails.
    Left after 3 years to return to normal life and raise a family. All of us work for a local ski resort each weekend during the winter…it is one of the few family sports that has no age barriers…and we love it.

  30. Skier
    United States
    May 18, 2016, 7:23 pm

    I totally get it, you dedicate your life to a sport not realizing at 50 you may not have the energy, strength and power to keep it at an entertaining level. Couple that with no money or retirement or career and go kill yourself. its simple

  31. 4892
    May 18, 2016, 7:33 pm

    I often get dismayed at the poor quality of these NG Adventure articles, but this one is excellent – one of the best pieces I’ve seen in an outdoor publication for a long time.

    Well done McMillan and hope to see more.

  32. Cynthia
    Timberline Mt. Hood Oregon
    May 18, 2016, 8:34 pm

    I work at Timberline and live in Govy a small tow just below Timberline. We recently lost a 22 year old friend by his own hands, The difference is we have such a strong Bond as a mountain family that this came as a shock to everyone that knew and loved him. What we did at Timberline was brought his family into our family here at Timberline. We have had rail Jams in his Honor, as well as wear wristbands that have his name as well as the suicide hotline number. It brought us even closer as a mountain family. I have Blood thats not family,,,,and Family that not Blood. I totally agree with the article I just wanted to state that not all mountain people feel alone. We will never forget our friend Timmy Johnson

  33. Pete
    Arizona mountain town, 5000 ft.
    May 18, 2016, 11:02 pm

    Suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem. Lived in Aspen and Steamboat Springs, 1980 to 2009. Nothing lasts forever. Not our greatest highs or our lowest of lows. NOTHING LASTS FOR EVER! Surviving in the mountain ski towns for a year or 40 is a huge badge on ones resume. There is no shame, there is no failure in coming back down. We have gone where few dare to go. Grow a garden, raise some kids, make love to life. If our legacy lives on in only one mind, our own, That is OK. The failure is not knowing when to come back down. Look back, LOOK BACK OFTEN! It was fucking worth it! No regrets!

  34. adventureswithamy
    Canada
    May 18, 2016, 11:56 pm

    Great article. I lived in a mountain town for a number of years, and I found that there was definitely a short supply of meaningful work. I found that while I enjoyed my jobs in the ski town, I didn’t feel like I was changing the world in a positive way. I moved to a nearby city, became a teacher, and now I have a job that is fulfilling and I visit the mountain town on the weekends and it seems to be the best of both worlds. It made me sad to see all of the lost souls trying to find fulfillment in the mountains and not attaining it despite endless powder days and gorgeous off seasons.

  35. Frank
    Summit County
    May 19, 2016, 12:17 am
  36. KS
    May 19, 2016, 1:55 am

    All of these are valid points, but so many of the individual cases of suicide in Aspen that I have seen in my 9 years as a seasonal worker there could not be explained by any one of or even a combination of these factors. Except maybe mental illness and the lack of services. Sometimes we can’t explain things with stats and that’s OK.
    That being said, a factor that wasn’t mentioned but is being studied more is the concussion crisis. In addition to drugs and alcohol, how many head injuries have these older ski bums come suicide victims had over the years?

  37. Rita
    Vail
    May 19, 2016, 2:17 am

    Wow, this article is amazing. Having lived in a small and extremely wealthy ski town for the past decade, I relate to everything you are saying. It is all very sad but true. Thank you for not being afraid to write about such a complex and taboo subject.

  38. Dan
    Jackson Hole
    May 19, 2016, 3:25 am

    There are a lot of good people struggling out there right now. We call it ‘Livin the Dream,’ but the truth is that keeping the dream alive is hard. After ten years here in Jackson, I’ve gotten to experience the monumental highs, and some pretty terrifying lows. These mountains are powerful, and this landscape can push people in really interesting ways. I’ve learned a lot, and I look forward to many more years here. My heart feels heavy at times with the loss and struggle, and I feel the collective pain of the human race. My heart is also as full and strong as ever, and I will continue to do my best to thrive. Much love to all, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

  39. BeforeItWasSkiTown
    Durango
    May 19, 2016, 5:35 am

    This is a fascinating and insightful article. There’s a level of self-centered, self-indulgence in ski and mountain towns that is much higher now than when I was growing up. It’s all about me and my fun now. But fulfillment in life runs short and shallow with that mindset. Over and over again, studies have shown that long term fulfillment in life comes from genuine selflessness in which your happiness comes from a sincere concern and commitment to other’s happiness, first, even if you’re dirt poor. Ski and mountain towns in the West have a very shallow culture now. They’ve lost the substance of farming, ranching, mining, and lumber that built them. They are starving to death on a diet of self-indulgence.

  40. Melanie
    Park City
    May 19, 2016, 8:12 am

    I moved to Utah over fifteen years ago. Park City was a completely different town, it was completely different fifteen years before that…and so on. What I’ve found living here is the beauty and attitude draws people to live here and the attraction to adventure. Ironically, it appears the second/third homeowners once here want to change it.

  41. David
    Bozeman
    May 19, 2016, 9:23 am

    “Wyoming ranks first in the nation for suicides.” I doubt this statistic has much to do with ski towns, and probably a lot more to do with eastern and central Wyoming’s energy extraction industry and all its troublesome ramifications. People EVERYWHERE are suffering from lives, communities and economies gone south.

    This seems like another case of ‘mountain people’ thinking they’re special, with special problems, when, guess what, they’re not.

  42. Bernard Larose
    Montréal, Québec, Canada
    May 19, 2016, 9:43 am

    The problems described in this very well written and insightful article are not unique to ski/mountain towns. They can be found in many prestigious appearing professions in large urban centres Think of high finance/ law in NYC. Obssession with one’s appearance and superficial/instant forms of pleasure, being a victim of mass marketing, not feeling rewarded through meaningful work nor maintaining healthy relationships and social isolation to name a few increase the likelihood of fatal outcome whether skiing powder every week or occupying an enviable position in a three piece suit while amassing large sums of income.

    Maybe the root cause of a lot of the misery depicted in this article is the pursuit of short term/instant/superficial gratification in an unsustainable manner at an early stage without considering the future nor having a back up plan. Perhaps, instead of ditching everything to ski after high school, putting it off a few years to obtain professionnal/academic training and even a few years in the workforce before starting a business/self employment in order to settle down in a mountain town would work better for many individuals. (i.e become physical therapist, chiropractor, accountant that can set up shop anywhere)

    It would be interesting to see a study on this phenomenon in certain regions of the alps such as Voralberg, Sud-Tirol, Tirol, Alta Lombardia, Piemonte and Switzerland as a whole. These regions are economic powerhouses of Europe and appear far better suited to balance a rewarding career with pursuit of the mountain lifestyle.

  43. CanmoreKid
    Canmore, Alberta
    May 19, 2016, 10:28 am

    Spot on. I believe one of the strongest factors contributing to depression and frustration in our mountain towns is the wealth gap. The average price for a single family home in Canmore is bordering on a million dollars, while you will rately see a job posted on the local job board for more than $14-15 an hour. On top of that, a very significant proportion of the mansion-style homes in town are typically vacant, occupied only a few weekends a year by wealthy second-home owners. Meanwhile, down the street, eight people are sharing a three bedroom apartment and paying exorbitant amounts for the privilege. This disparity, paired with the fact that these two groups of citizens almost never have occasion to interact on any meaningful level, deeply degrades the incredible sense of community that used to be the pride of our town. It makes me sad to know that after living here all my life and being a community connector here, it seems likely that I will eventually have to leave if I want to buy a small home or have any semblance of basic financial security for myself.

  44. Emma G
    Denver, CO
    May 19, 2016, 11:18 am

    This article would be well supplemented by providing some resources to people who are struggling in these situations. (Or people who are worried about friends/family.) The national suicide prevention lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Veterans can press 1 for veteran-specific services. There is also an online chat at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

  45. Paul
    Formerly Aspen, Colo.
    May 19, 2016, 12:24 pm

    Two weeks after I started working at The Aspen Times in Sept. 2001, we had a suicide up Independence Pass Road. A woman killed herself by connecting a hose to her exhaust pipe. I couldn’t figure out why.

    Several months later, another suicide. Then a third, fourth, fifth, …. Hunter S. Thompson, was the most famous we covered.

    In 7 1/2 years, there were well over a dozen. To this day I can not for the life of me figure out why. Such a beautiful area, great people, great friends. Haunting.

    Two years ago we lost a friend to suicide. He jumped off the Maroon Creek Pedestrian bridge. No letter, no reason, only speculation.

    If you need help, it is out there. Talk to friends, family, coworkers. You are not in this alone.

  46. Adventuremom
    Grand Junction
    May 19, 2016, 12:36 pm

    Living in Colorado is beautiful and challenging. There are things we can do to prevent suicide as individuals and communities. You can seek training in suicide intervention (check the Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation). If you are worried about yourself or someone you care about you can also call the national suicide lifeline (24/7) which has a veterans option and Spanish speaking as well. Here’s the number – don’t hesitate to call and save a life:
    1-800-273-8255

  47. Annabelle
    Park City, UT
    May 19, 2016, 2:01 pm

    Thanks for writing this article, it’s refreshing to know this is a common thread. After so many years of living in Park City and being a social person, I’ve been questioning hard the last year or so why I still feel such a lack of community and network, despite reaching out not knowing if it’s me or my environment. Lot’s of nice people but just so much disconnect, and always hearing what a fabulous community it is and seeing it touted in magazines as one of the best has gotten me more perplexed as I have been feeling the opposite. This article is helping get clarity that it might be the place, beautiful as it can be, it might be time to just surrender it to the tourists and find a real place to call home with more soul.

  48. Steve
    United States
    May 19, 2016, 2:05 pm

    This article missed a big factor.

    Concussions.

    Believe me. Iv’e been there.

  49. Steve
    United States
    May 19, 2016, 2:10 pm

    If you have suffered one or many concussions of any severity, please consider matter-of-factly that they may alter your mood, lead to depression or suicidal thoughts. Be proactive, objective and seek help. Talk it out. You can make it through. I did.

  50. JBS
    Canada
    May 19, 2016, 2:17 pm

    My hubby and I live in a very small, high elevation ski village and I wonder if there is a connection to be made with suicide and the type of people that choose to live this lifestyle. My hubby suffers from depression and manages it best with an active outdoorsy lifestyle. He realized that living in the suburbs and working his 9-5 corporate job did not leave nearly enough free time for him to re-energize his mind and spirit, making his depression more difficult to manage. So, we moved to the mountain and created a different work life balance (we each work only one year round job, part-time) much better suited to his needs. He still suffers from depression but he came to the mountain with it, it has not gotten worse since being here. In fact, I know this lifestyle choice has been better for him than any other he has had until this point. I have seen him go ‘flat’ when we have a long stretch of gloomy weather, but he perks up with a big-ass smile when he straps on the ski’s or gets off the bike and excitedly shares his post ride story. I rarely saw that level of happiness during his corporate job days. If one day, god forbid, he should succumb to his darkest thoughts, I would take comfort in the fact that he has been happiest here and that the mountains made his life better, and that the battle with his depression was lost because of it’s constant and sometimes overwhelming presence.

  51. Marley
    Park City, UT
    May 19, 2016, 3:50 pm

    Love this article. The nail was hit on the head with the substance abuse. I have a handful of good friends trying to get out of the party/bar scene because of problems with alcohol consumption. While there are things to do that aren’t bars, there aren’t too many people who will do them without a beer in hand. I am lucky to have found two year round jobs (but still have to work 2-3 jobs to survive). I have also been lucky to have found a handful of year round friends that I adore.

    I definitely understand the lack of social network. I have made and lost so many friends from moving in and out of town. Park City definitely attracts the wanderlust type of people. I feel like I have friends all over the world! But very few left where I live. If you don’t find anyone who is invested in having a life here, it would be very hard.

    When all my friends are gone, I invest my time in personal art projects and that usually gets me through. And I have a dog; that helps too

  52. Mark
    Eastern US
    May 19, 2016, 6:28 pm

    I have spent some time thinking about suicide and it’s causes since my 30 year old son completed suicide last year. The U.S. is 50th in the world in suicide rate, so access to firearms is not the issue. It’s just an efficient method. People choose other methods when firearms are restricted.

    I don’t know if the elevation is a factor. I do think the risk seeking behavior that skiers exhibit, like rock climbers, white water kayakers, BASE jumpers, etc. may be a symptom of whatever underlying problems are present.

    It may be that the population you are writing about is self selecting and clustering in the ski areas.

    What I do know for sure is that every one of these young people leave behind family and friends that will grieve the rest of their lives.

  53. Kate
    St Paul, MN
    May 19, 2016, 6:55 pm

    This article is so close to my heart. I came into alcohol recovery after a year spent in Telluride, CO. The San Juan mountains will forever be a magical place to me but it’s also the place where I hit my rock bottom. I related to everything in this article. My disease almost killed me in Telluride but I am grateful for the time I had there. I like to say Telluride is my “Heaven on Earth”. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to Heaven (8,000ft+) and thankfully, God was not ready for me yet. Celebrating two years of sobriety in September and God willing, a lifetime more.

  54. Seth
    NC
    May 19, 2016, 8:34 pm

    I can hopefully offer some insight to this. I don’t ski, but I do spend most of my time paddling whitewater, and prior to getting into that I spent all of my time hiking, scrambling, and off-trail hiking. I also developed depression around the time I started spending most of my time pursuing these activities.
    I don’t think that the activities themselves had and have anything to do with the initial depressive disorder, but they definitely have some impact on when the ups and downs happen. Using the activities I love as a crutch to escape some of the parts of life that bring me down is a common problem. The “individual-ness” of a lot of the hiking I did made things worse as well. I often could not find anyone that shared the same enthusiasm about these things as I did, so I would often go alone. Compounding the problem was the problem of people acting like they wanted to go, or even making plans then cancelling at the last minute. I can’t tell you how often the latter happened. After a while it can make you question your self worth; why else would people constantly cancel on you?
    Sometimes I think that paddling is the only thing that that can bring me happiness. I know this isn’t true, but it can be hard sometimes anyways. When you are committed to an activity that has a very specific and small community attached to it, the social pressures can affect you as well. The community of whitewater paddlers is so small, and if you don’t fit in with them it can feel like you don’t belong, which is a really confusing feeling; being committed to something you love, but unable to connect to others that share the same passion. Many folks on the outside think that just because you share a passion with others that automatically makes you feel belonging and community, but this isn’t always the case. Many if not most of the paddlers I see are so diametrically opposite of myself; the bro brah culture is pretty dominant in a lot of these niche sports, and if you don’t identify with that subculture you aren’t really a part of the group.
    Maybe these skiers had some of these same problems. Maybe they just felt that being a ski bum was a really hard life that they could no longer go on with. Maybe the adrenaline that we get from our activities make the rest of life seem too dull to deal with. If some connections can be made to figure out the commonalities in these cases maybe the question can be better answered.

  55. mj
    California
    May 19, 2016, 11:01 pm

    I lived in a Canadian ski town for seven years, it was a stunningly beautiful place and I was there to experience it with so many choices of exhilaratig outdoor pursuits, but the social scene was a dud. The worst of high school, but amplified by the non stop party scene, shallow, competitive, phony. It’s hard to leave a place that looks like paradise, but I THANK GOD I left. I’m 48 now, and if I was still slinging burgers and fries for the privilege of hitting the open slopes during midweek, I’d be seriously bummed out. I still have friends that live in mountain towns, they’re just not as close anymore because they seem almost desperately stuck in their late 20’s and when I hear one of them talk about “blue bird” days or intone the name of the snow god, “ULAR!”, I think, “Thank GOD, thank god I am not there”. It was fun. Up to a point…when you gather up all that ‘rah rah, I’m a hard core mountain chick’ bullshit and use it as a real force to face the world and get out in it. That’s grit. Ski towns are bubbles, and as one commenter mentioned above, some people should not stay in mountain towns, unless you’re Peter Pan and never want to grow up.

  56. Hajes
    May 20, 2016, 12:00 am

    It is amusing how Americans present themselves…rich nation. I noticed this musing phenomenon in other developed countries.

    I always said “Try to live in post-communist, corrupted countries where everything has been stolen”

    You have easy life and unlimited opportunities, yet you always moan about how bad life is 😀

    I grew up in shit, started with minus and moved to developed country to become rich (in mind) person. Those articles always made me smile.

  57. Steven
    Away
    May 20, 2016, 12:28 am

    Regarding the comparisons with Alps locations versus the Rockies, after spending time in France (but not the French Alps) I’d have to wonder if the French have a better solution to the problem of expensive worker rents and vacant multimillion-dollar homes – many properties have “concierges” that stay on the property and are responsible for being a watchman and caretaker for said property (sometimes by pensioners). Seems like reasonable forward-thinking community-centric towns (like Aspen?) could find ways to encourage community in their towns by encouraging absentee landowners not to monopolize scarce housing resources, no? Just because you have to be wealthy to party there shouldn’t necessarily mean that you need to be either wealthy or destitute to exist there, does it?

  58. Laura
    May 20, 2016, 12:46 am

    I think the article placed too much emphasis on situational factors that contribute to suicide, but in and of themselves, do not push someone to take their life. 90% of all people who die by suicide have a mental illness. If you take someone struggling with mental illness, in an area with little mental health care, areas where mental illness is often stigmatized, put them in an environment with heavy substance use, and then factor in easy access to guns, you see an individual with a high risk for suicide. The underlying factor isn’t economics or marital difficulty. It’s mental illness. With better mental health care, individuals are able to cope with life stressors, with relationships, address substance use. Without it, we continue to see people die because they couldn’t get the help they needed.

  59. Naj
    United States
    May 20, 2016, 1:11 am

    I’m pretty much trapped in the same cycle, located in the belt, and I don’t expect to see 35. I’m speaking for myself when I say that I definitely don’t want help. Mainly because the help I need does not exist. But that’s not stopping me from enjoying what time I have left. I can honestly say I’ve had a great life. I appreciate the opportunities that I’ve been given. But my time is short.

    I do want to point out that suicide isn’t always a result of mental illness. Instead, for some it’s a mode of control over quality of life. Medication nor therapy will address my quality of life, why even treat it with such methods? That’s nonsensical. That’s like telling a doctor that I like running but I don’t have the time for it, so he gives me an anabolic steroid. That doesn’t help at all.

    I’ve spent years developing the idea and I know what I want. I’ve built my life around it. I don’t have a family, I don’t have any obligations (other than bills), I really don’t surround myself with things that would receive undo harm from my choices. I’ve done this because I do care about others. My choices are something most people can’t grasp, I believe they will feel obligated to change my mind or even responsible for my choices if they were unsuccessful. People don’t deserve to be put in that harmful position. I realize how strange this is for most. So I’ve planned with that in mind.

    The problem that I have is there’s no access here to options where I could donate my body to those in need. Again, I’m trapped. I must exit in a way that’s unnecessarily brutal and wasteful. Whereas some states allow restricted assisted suicide, I’m not in that category of acceptance. I’m forced into hiding away, with ridiculous and violent options. That’s not what I want for my quality of life either but alas it’s the option I have.

    Watch the movie Seven Pounds (2008). Why can’t I just be at peace on my own terms? Can’t we have that discussion without dragging mental illness into the road and revoking my rights?

    I know I’m all over the place but I’m tired. Ninety hour work weeks are rough.

  60. Nicole
    Utah
    May 20, 2016, 1:42 am

    Clearly, given all of these amazing and heartfelt comments, your article resonates so loud and clear across our outdoor sports communties–thank you so much for having the courage to tackle an very “un-fun” topic, and doing it so well. It is my hope that you may have just provided some hope for those that felt hopeless. I’ll tack on one addition I wish was made to the piece. Again, thank you!
    National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    1-800-273-8255
    http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

  61. Anne Hopkinson
    Littleton, CO
    May 20, 2016, 5:58 am

    I lost my sister to suicide 35 years ago, not due to life in the mountains but that drew my attention to this article. i have heard in said in the 6 years we have lived in Colorado that the suicide rate is much higher here than other places in the U.S., not only in mountain towns, also not just mid lifers in crisis but also teens here? This subject deserves to be studied much more and discussed openly, so that those in crisis understand they have someone to turn to for help. I met someone though my job who’s family are from Leadville, and it struck me as extremely sad that she had several family members who had committed suicide – not a ski town but definitely higher elevation and isolated in winter? Talking about this and giving people a platform to discuss their frustrations and sadness, somewhere to connect with others. Thank you for such an important article, it may help one or hopefully many people who are feeling alone, or their friends to recognize that they should reach out to someone in need…..

  62. Andrew Szalay
    Alexandria, VA
    May 20, 2016, 6:03 am

    To John’s question about Vermont, according to news this year (2016), Vermont Digger says Vermont’s suicide rate has increased from 27th place to 7th! This saddens me greatly as a Vermonter at heart.

  63. Been There Done That
    United States
    May 20, 2016, 8:06 am

    Well, There it is,..Did you “cut and paste” my life, history, adrenaline-fueled risk taking, struggle with depression, Seasonal Affected Disorder, and years of battling suicidal thoughts and a couple of attempts while living for over 40 years in beautiful Telluride Colorado? This is an outstanding article. I knew every one of the people who have committed suicide in our county this spring. Upon hearing that yet another local that I knew, had been feeling such despair that they chose to take their own life, I silently wished I could do the same. I have often thought that suicide would provide me with relief because I felt it was more painful to just get through another day. All of these thoughts have one through my head while my eyes are looking at some of the most majestic mountains and incredible scenery on the planet. With every announcment that another person had taken their life, everyone said, “OMG, I had no idea they were so unhappy. They never showed it at all”…Just like them, on the outside, I appear to everyone in my community, to have been a “Wonder Woman” who has done amazing things, had a unique and enviable career, that I have been joyous and happily “living the dream”. But on the inside,..I SUCK! Only my physician, my mental health aid and my very best friend know about my struggle with crippling depression and despair that I have felt for the last 10 years or so. They have all kept my secret. My best friend has not ever whispered my story in the kind of idle gossip that always takes place in a small community such as this. Not just because she is my buddy and most loyal friend, but also because she is a psychologist and is bound by confidentiality. In her practice in this small community, she hears the same struggles on a regular basis from client after client. I would guess that Prozac and Latuda are the top perscriptions filled at our local pharmacy. We jokingly say that we have two seasons here,..Winter and July. But it’s NOT a joke. The winters are Loooong. It is the middle of May and it was snowing just a couple of days ago. It is the beginning of mud season where everything is brown, there are no leaves on the trees yet and the grass isn’t green. I know that like me, there are many of my fellow Telluridians who are smiling on the outside, sharing their best stories about the past ski season with their friends and family, whooping about the coming spring and on the on the INSIDE, we hope that we can make it long enough to see the first wildflowers appear and watch the elk calves wobbling around on their long legs along the valley floor the middle of June. Give your friends an extra hug this time of year,…You never know if just that one hug, might be a life-line for them.

  64. Kristine
    Dallas
    May 20, 2016, 8:13 am

    I had no idea. Thank you for presenting such a compelling article. I will be sharing it on my FB page. Suicide is not a cowardly act…its a desperate act.

  65. Joseph Patrick Gebhardt
    United States
    May 20, 2016, 8:18 am

    Had a friend off himself this year in Aspen. Yes, so when the party’s over for the year there left there with absolutely nothing. Just returned from a quick trip to Aspen and it was a ghost town besides the locals that have spent most of there lives there. You can always tell who they are do to the deep cracks in there faces do to the sun and more than likely had a life of partying. Sad but this article is so true!

  66. Eleanor
    BC
    May 20, 2016, 2:00 pm

    I’ve lived in a variety of ski towns all my life, including the present one. There’s another class of people who commit suicide that the article did not address – “trust funders.” The first person I knew who committed suicide in Telluride was one of these folks. He inherited money and never had to work, so he skied, partied, drank, and snorted a good portion of that money up his nose. He had no goals and was directionless. He never had the self-satisfaction that comes from doing a job, the experience of being a member of a team, the thrill of solving a problem, the self-esteem that comes from having done good work – even if it is a job like being a waiter. There was, in short, no meaning and no greater purpose to his life. His suicide was extremely sad. All of us twenty-something hotel maids and busboys would have loved to have had his income – but at the same time, none of us would have exchanged places with him. We all decided that if we made a fortune and had kids, the kids would not have a trust fund until they were at least forty years old and had been forced to make their way through the world first. I’ve seen the same dynamic play out subsequently in other mountain towns.

  67. Steve Slocum
    san diego
    May 20, 2016, 10:09 pm

    Tom Slocum was my brother. The article does not do him justice. Wouldn’t be an issue, except that he is the named, showcase person upon which the whole article is built. #1, he was not living in a “shack”. It was a small, but cozy caretaker residence on the property. It was well built and in good maintenance, and I’m sure he was very comfortable there. You can ask the surgeon who owned the property if it was a “shack”. #2, most of causes written about in the article are short term in nature. Someone moves to the mountains and dreams don’t come true, and, aggravated by special effects of isolation, the effects of altitude on brain chemistry, transience of the community, etc. they become suicidal. My brother lived in Telluride from his early 20s to the age of 57. He was in heaven there. I have no doubt that some of the psychological and physiological issues alluded to played a role in his suicide, but the primary factors were much deeper and have nothing to do with this article. The other person mentioned, the 46 year old, was also a long termer in Telluride.

    Since my brother was used to sensationalize this article, I feel justified in saying that there is big missing piece to it. The affect on those who have come there young and lived their dreams happily as a “ski bum”, then reached middle age and are not able to do all the same things, THEN face all the isolation, lack of community, all your friends married with kids, altitude, substance abuse, no career or retirement plan…. It’s a good article and I’m glad it was written, but you picked the wrong guy as your feature character, and you missed a key piece of the puzzle.

  68. Pete
    Arizona mountain town, 5000 ft.
    May 21, 2016, 9:58 pm

    Sorry Steve, for the loss of your brother Tom, may he rest in peace. It is sure to be more complicated than we can give credit for here, Rugged individualism doesn’t necessarily mean invincible. I’m sure it wasn’t all bad, it never is, it’s just those moments. No matter the complications, every one who makes a go of it in a small mountain town deserves all the love, honor and respect we all desire. It’s worth it.

  69. […] Why Are Ski Towns Seeing More Suicides? – National Geographic – Can you relate to this? Sad, yet true. […]

  70. telemack
    May 22, 2016, 7:41 pm

    After spending a couple decades floating in and around mountain towns (and their aquatic problem kin, surf towns) and the people affiliated with them the answer seems clear. The communities are weak and many of the people aren’t that great at supporting others. These days as they’ve weakened further there’s always group hugs, little I belong fundraisers, and the usual bravado, but in the ways that make communities work, mountain ones are pretty shallow. Like most of the people who move to them now. Most are more concerned with their own pleasure, their own brand and their own “presence” than others and building something durable and sustainable – whether that be a town, a community, a business or themselves. There’s permissiveness for substance use, and there’s permissiveness for substance abuse. The raft of heroin ODs in several ski towns shows the cost of the latter. The unwillingness for residents to differentiate between unthinking impulsive risk taking and considerate risk taking shows in the deaths from other recreational injuries. There’s a long list of problems that will never fix themselves until residents see it’s a problem. Perhaps they will and they’ll become the places they think they are.

  71. Scott Anderson
    jackson, Wy
    May 24, 2016, 8:05 pm

    Suicides are very complicated things. It is difficult to try to rationalize them. The author’s attempt to correlate suicide with the price of housing in ski towns is misguided at best, and more likely a vapid attempt at victimization.

  72. Summer Berklee
    Lake Tahoe, CA
    May 25, 2016, 11:54 am

    This article is spot on, and yes, the lack of affordable housing in ski towns is a factor, whether people(who own homes) want to admit it or not.

    Here’s an article from the local Lake Tahoe paper.

    http://www.sierrasun.com/news/opinion/22082503-113/my-view-it-is-expensive-to-live-here

    To me, it reeks of ignorance. When you’re no longer 20 or 30-something your priorities change, and maybe you’d rather move back home to the “Rust Belt” after all, where you can afford to buy a home, rentals are cheap, and you can find a year round job instead of having to scramble for 3 part time seasonal jobs.

    This guy’s got a real job, so it’s easy for him to say the stupid things he says in this Tahoe paper. I’m so sick of hearing about the “quality of life” in Tahoe. I lived in Aspen too, and 3 years was enough to see that there was a dark side to mountain towns. I thought Tahoe was different, but it’s the same thing…only worse.

    At least Aspen has an affordable housing plan in place. There’s nothing in Truckee, yet. They’re working on putting up one affordable housing structure, but this region is slow learning and slow to allow progress to happen.

    Tahoe locals are being pushed out now because of the “quality of life” as families from the Bay area are snatching up homes that sit vacant for most of the year, while locals are finding it virtually impossible to find a home- any home.

    If you own a “free market” home in a mountain resort town such as Aspen, or Telluride or Truckee, you’ll never understand the struggle of having to move every change of season.

    Yes, it’s depressing. And the older you get, the harder it is to justify staying in a mountain town for quality of life when the reality is that quality of life means different things for different people, and what that meant when you were 20 means something completely different when you’re 40.

    We feel pressure to stay in a beautiful place instead of “giving up” and going back to the rat race. We seem so happy as we post our amazing mountain and lake photos on Instagram and Facebook.
    Our friends who don’t live in a resort or mountain town think we are so lucky to live where we live. But many of us are only living a superficial life and just trying to make it work, when we realize that it’s kind of a lie. We’re not really happy because we’re struggling to find employment and housing. And that is the dichotomy of living in a mountain town.

  73. SkiPresto
    Edinburgh
    May 28, 2016, 4:35 pm

    Did any of these suicides put a gun to their heads sober?
    What would they have done if they hadn’t had the access to a firearm?
    WIKI reports Gun Death in USA in 2013 was as follows:-
    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013, firearms were used in 84,258 nonfatal injuries (26.65 per 100,000 U.S. citizens) [2] and 11,208 deaths by homicide (3.5 per 100,000),[3] 21,175 by suicide with a firearm,[4] 505 deaths due to accidental discharge of a firearm,[4] and 281 deaths due to firearms-use with “undetermined intent”[5] for a total of 33,169 deaths related to firearms (excluding firearm deaths due to legal intervention).
    That’s just one year. (In contrast, the number of USA service personnel killed in the Vietnam war in the 10 years between between 1965 and 1975 was 282,000) a lower annual average.

    Living as a worker in a millionaires’ playground isn’t on the face of it a rational career choice.

  74. Frederick P. Certano (Rick)
    United States
    May 31, 2016, 3:28 pm

    I’m a (almost) 70 year old ski bum. I lived in Summit county Colorado in the 70’s. Moved there after college. Was living my dream. Then reality set in. Long story but a little voice in my head asked me if I wanted to be sitting at the Angels Rest bar having a burger and beer when I was 50? It was an ephiney. I was gone in 6 months. Stayed in the ski business and worked my way up so that the last 20 years I ran 2 different ski areas as President and GM. Now I’m retired and living the dream. I’m not rich but I have enough to live well. Ski 110-120 days a year. A lot of my friends are now in the situation you discussed, I’ll look out for them. One other thing. Every year when spring arrives and skiing ends I go through withdrawel. The people you see every day on the lifts and slopes are gone. Your way of life changes drastically. Your friends, support structure all of it changes. Not a wonder that depression sets in and suicide follows. No dopamine rush. No place in life. I’m good at figuring things out and have the financial resources to do it. April is
    Snowbird. May is Mt. Hood. Haven’t figured out what June is but between biking, hiking and the gym I’ll survive until next winter!!!
    Thanks to Nat. Geo. for a timely article!! Hope every young ski bum reads this!!!

  75. Dave Borland
    May 31, 2016, 5:09 pm

    These are the most insightful, articulate comments to any article I’ve ever read on the internet. Thanks to all who contributed.

  76. Jim
    May 31, 2016, 11:03 pm

    Before, there used to be too much land to settle. Nowadays, there’s not enough land to share, so the majority of people move to where they can find cheap housing:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/05/how-america-lost-its-mojo/484655/

  77. Geoffrey Holland
    Canada
    June 1, 2016, 6:37 pm

    ” It’s not one event that tips a person from life to death but instead a lifetime of experiences and circumstances that culminate in one fateful, irreversible choice. ”

    While that my be the case in the majority of these sorts of suicides, there are many suicides that do come about as a result of one event. And with the gun culture of the US, it’s much easier for someone to have access to a firearm and commit suicide with it.

  78. wayne k sheldrake, author
    United States
    June 3, 2016, 1:05 pm

    An old friend of mine who ski bummed Crested Butte for a year back in the 80’s sent me this article with this comment: “I know from the year I spent in Crested Butte that it is hard to find any sort of stable friendships outside the couple of people we worked with, and the party scene down at the bar. I met some really nice people, but it was so transient. Even though I made a couple good friends, I don’t know anybody from that time now.” My suspicion is that if he were able to look them up, some of them would be dead, of course–possibly an inordinate number from suicide.

    I’ve skimmed some of the comments on the article, and most of the answers are there. My initial response is: maybe a lot of suicidal people (people with serious or borderline mental illness or other trauma) run away to mountain towns thinking escape is their answer. The John Denver Complex. Does anyone remember that John Denver struggled with depression. One of the comments mentioned Hunter Thompson’s suicide. Well,m I just quit reading Paul Perry’s unauthorized biography of Hunter. That guy had serious oppositional mental problems supplemented by alcohol and drug problems from the getgo. Myself as an example, in my book (Instant Karma: The Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum)I said in my younger years I wasn’t suicidal, I just didn’t care if I lived or died. What’s that condition called? I call it proximal suicide. Extreme athletes say it’s worth it to die doing what you love doing? I’ve been following avalanches deaths as a hobby for the past few years. Wolf Creek Pass has become a popular backcountry skiing and snowmobiling destination at the same time that it (all all the San Juans) is known as an extremely active avalanche zone. There has been at least one death on the pass, usually more, every year. Just one snowmobiler this year. Both here and elsewhere, very often the victim is a certified avalanche expert. Two ski patrolman for Wolf Creek have died in the past two years. One, the Director of the patrol, died in bounds. An expert. He’d had close calls before. The other was Wolf Creek’s snow studies expert. Died out-of-bounds while on the job. What’s that called? I call it proximal suicide. It fits a personality type we all associate with mountain lifestyle. I did my Master’s thesis on Chris McCandless of Into the Wild fame. http://www.christophermccandless.info/wayne-sheldrake/wayne-sheldrake-intothewild.html. The thesis was he was a suicidal for years before he died in Alaska doing something that was suicidal (and he’d had similar close calls before). So, not a surprise to me. The number of friends I have who have committed proximal or outright suicide is around a dozen right now. I have other who confess they have come close to pulling the trigger. I’ve been precarious at times. Consideration for wife and my sons deterred me. After a teacher two doors down from me at Monte Vista High school shot himself after work one day, and after I saw the reaction of the colleagues and kids he worked with and his family’s horror, I resolved that I would never put my loved ones through that. I never really understood how many mentally vulnerable people–people I adorn and lionize–I have been close to over the years until in an episode of unemployment and depression a few years ago, I began to examine my own mental fitness. After a few counseling sessions I discovered I had Complex PTSD, called complex because the contributing events accumulate over time (not the least of which were a hand-fill of bona fide seriously-really-could-have-died events). Part of what has made this difficult is, as the article points out, lack of access to proficient effective mental health. I actually did the research and confirmed my own diagnosis; the counselor I’d seen for half-a-dozen sessions pulled his DSM from his shelf, read through the symptoms (I had them all except the combat-vet trauma flash-back sorts of hallucinations) and said, Yup, you have PTSD. The mental health resources in my region are over an hour away. The system is clogged with forced referrals from the criminal justice system. PTSD treatment calls for intensive, regular sessions, sometimes for years. I was lucky to get an appointment twice a month. Next session, I sat in a waiting room with a bunch of offenders on probation or parole again, not a pleasant prospect for a teacher in a small community. Some were people who knew me because I (or my wife) worked with their kids in the school. it’s embarrassing, humiliating, and potentially damaging to your reputation to seek help in a small town. Confidence in confidentiality is hard to achieve. Then in the session, the counselor said he had a routine for PTSD that had a 50% success rate. Hmmm. When I had heart surgery the surgeon said the success rate was 99.9%. I listened politely. Reminded him of details we’d already discussed but that he’d forgotten (and neglected to take notes on). And never went back. I investigated local therapists who dealt with PTSD. I knew two personally–so they couldn’t and shouldn’t take a friend as a client. I shopped around. the closests therapist I could find that treated PTSD was in Colorado Springs–4 hours of hard driving away. I’ve dealt with my diagnosis through vigilant self-study since. So, yes, mental health resources stink, and most people who subsist in these remote mountain towns couldn’t afford it anyway. Community stability is definitely an issue. My own personal support systems, mostly friends since I am not close either emotionally or geographically to my own family, has collapsed half a dozen times over the years. I have an address book of no less than 100 friends that have come and gone, and gone far. People simply get fed up with the remoteness, working with the chronically poor, being underpaid, the difficult environment (long winters), the lack of advancement, the altitude (it gets tougher as people get older), and tired living in too-close-for-comfort proximity of a culture ever-tilting toward criminality. Luckily, I’ve been happily married for 25 years (known her for almost 30), but the dearth of friends is tough on both of us. The last couple of years, we have gone through another evacuation–our two closest couple-friends moved away, and Lauren’s mother has relocated for health reasons. They are all suddenly far away. We have had friendships with hometown locals over the years, but they naturally gravitate to their families and their old high-school pals. It’s difficult to meaningfully crack that internecine social circle. If you are new, it can be lonely, that’s true. Luckily, I’ve always enjoyed solitude ans still do. The article touches on the drug problems of these small towns. The problem is profound and explains a lot, in my opinion. All the suicides or proximal suicides I’ve witnessed either still struggled with a drug addiction or had serious and obviously damaging problems in the past. When I was in my 20s and 30s coke was devastating a generation, and for many who were particularly abusive the effects on their mental health have been permanent. A hurricane of heroin is hitting small mountain communities now and the behaviors associated with that look very suicidal. So, I am back to the question: Are small mountain towns causing suicide; or are people with a tendency for suicide attracted (perhaps mistakenly) to small towns? At first blush these places are wonderlands of escape and freedom, but to truly escape your past you have to leave more than the place you left. You have to leave your old self behind, too. And to do that you have to be courageous enough to honestly face your daemons, tough enough to weather periods of loneliness, and willing to face the fact that you might live longer than you expected when your proximal suicide doesn’t work out, and inventive enough and relentless enough to treat yourself when you aren’t sure what’s next.

    That’s the short answer. The long answer is a book I probably should write.

  79. Bob
    wilson wyoming
    June 3, 2016, 4:02 pm

    Whiners! I’ve lived exactly the life the article talks about: climbing guide, skier, etc. With one difference. I got serious about a home and family- worked hard, built myself a house.
    It’s about choices- I put away the skis and worked long and hard to house myself. It’s about taking RESPONSIBILITY for the choices you make, whatever they are.
    I work for the wealthy. I do not envy their wealth. It does not depress me. The “problem” here has very little to do with circumstance, and much to do with attitude.
    Don’t like the way your life is working out, at 27 or 57? Get off your dead ass and change it!
    My living room is at 6500′, doesn’t seem to depress me.
    By the way, nice try blaming the guns.

  80. […] ‘Why Are Ski Mountain Towns Seeing More Suicides’  author Kelly McMillan paints an alternate canvas to the powder days and party nights picture that […]

  81. […] ‘Why Are Ski Mountain Towns Seeing More Suicides’  author Kelly McMillan paints an alternate canvas to the powder days and party nights picture that […]

  82. Ned
    Australia
    June 15, 2016, 7:24 am

    it’s not much different than most rural farming communities. people that live in a ski town are “snow farmers.” their fortunes are tied to whether mother nature delivers the goods. one or 2 bad years in a row can put people into significant financial strife. shops have to stock the latest and greatest, and that changes every year. I know this first hand as I grew up in a ski resort town and my family still has a ski shop there. there are many parallels between farming communities and ski towns.

  83. Dave Rolloff
    United States
    June 18, 2016, 10:20 am

    This subject is clearly worth more extended study and discussion based on the volume and insight of responses, particularly from Mr. Slokum’s brother, who bravely responded and reminded us that stories are always more complex than an article can communicate. I lived in Driggs, Idaho back in the 90s and worked at Grand Targhee, but I remember as a 20-something year old ski instructor looking at the older folks at the resort and wondered how I could make it all work there. I left, went to graduate school, and now teach about outdoor recreation and public lands at a large, urban university. My classroom is stale and sad, but my students’ minds are rich and adventurous and I often encourage them to spend a few seasons “someplace beautiful.” Past midlife now and after having a great run in a career, I often wonder a bit sadly if maybe I should have stayed in one of my beloved small towns (Ely, Minnesota – Enterprise, Oregon – Driggs, Idaho – Terlingua, Texas). This story was cold comfort.