To understand why our recent story on suicide in ski towns resonated so profoundly within mountain communities, we examined the 80 comments.
A winter storm lifts off a ranch below the Sneffels Range near Telluride, Colorado.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN KNIGHT
By Kelley McMillan
PUBLISHED JUNE 13, 2016
More than 30,000 people take their own lives each year in the United States, and nowhere, aside from Alaska, is suicide more prevalent than in the Rocky Mountain West. But even within the inter-mountain region, some of the country’s most idyllic ski towns—places like Aspen, Colorado—have suicide rates well above state and national averages.
In an effort to bring light to this alarming phenomenon, on May 16, National Geographic Adventure published a story about the prevalence of suicide in western ski towns. In just a few days, "Why Are Ski Towns Seeing More Suicides?" became one of National Geographic Adventure’s most read and discussed stories of the year. Then, on June 7, the piece was featured on Colorado Public Radio. The story had struck a deep chord in our readers.
We wanted to understand why this piece resonated so profoundly with you and get a better sense of what’s happening in our mountain communities, so we began sifting through your comments. Of course, these aren’t expert analyses, but instead informed opinions, many stemming from years of experience living in ski towns.
For many readers, the phenomenon of suicide in mountain towns is all too familiar, and several comments touched on income disparity as a driving force behind suicide. In fact, these comments are not unfounded: A 2012 study linked wealth disparity to increased suicide risk, and the population most susceptible to suicide in this scenario was low-income individuals living among the wealthy. “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. The community becomes less inclusive by the year, leaving an ugly survival-of-the-wealthiest environment,” said one reader from Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
On top of that, readers cited a dearth of interesting employment as an issue. “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,” said a reader in Canada.
Other readers surmised that expectations for life change as one ages, and people often get stuck in ski towns, leaving them with few options to get out once they’ve reached middle age. “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,” said Summer Berklee of Lake Tahoe, California.
Then there’s the idea that ski towns might select for individuals who are at a greater risk of suicide. Though it’s hard to prove, it’s an idea readers thought very likely. “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,” said Brett McNary.
In that vein, readers speculated that some people move to the mountains to manage symptoms of mental illness through outdoor pursuits—say, to soothe that electric surge of anxiety with a 10-mile trail run. And for some, the mountains themselves are the perfect anecdote; for others they’re simply not enough, and the lack of mental health care in these communities was an oft-cited issue. “It took me three weeks to get an intake appointment with the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center and now another three to four weeks before I will be able to speak with a psychologist. For someone truly in pain, this might be a bit too long,” said Matt in Jackson Hole.
Despite the widespread conception that ski towns offer a strong sense of community, many readers suggested otherwise and pointed to social media as a factor increasing feelings of isolation and disconnect. “In a tightly knitted ski resort town people feel like crap if they’re not a 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,” said a reader in Aspen, Colorado. In fact, recent studies have indicated that social media may increase suicide risk in vulnerable individuals and communities.
Readers also pointed to a certain self-indulgence inherent to ski town life, the rise of heroin, and concussions as possible causes driving suicide in ski towns. “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-[turned]-suicide victims had over the years?” said KS. Indeed, a recent study showed that suffering a concussion raises suicide risk threefold.
But perhaps the most impactful comments were those that proposed solutions that might stem this terrible tide. Readers suggested more affordable housing programs, raising the minimum wage, special appreciation days for local workers, and suicide intervention training.Others recommended more alcohol-free ways to socialize and build community. “We need to consider oxygen bars to replenish our brains, coffee/tea/book stores that stay open late to offer a drug and alcohol-free place to socialize after regular business hours, more community-based volunteering opportunities which bring people together,” said Robyn of Tahoe City, California.
But what can we do while we wait for our communities to make meaningful changes? A reader in Telluride, Colorado, offered up one incredibly simple and powerful action: compassion.
“Pick up the phone, drop by, check in regularly on your fellow community members and survivors who’ve lost someone to suicide. 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.”
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Kelley McMillan is a Denver, Colorado-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @KelleyRMcMillan or on Instagram @KelleyMcMillan.