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The perils of living in a ski town

post #1 of 20
Thread Starter 
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.
The article is much longer, but worth reading.
post #2 of 20

Vermont is also an area with abnormally high suicide rates.  People have tried to link firearm ownership and access (teens in homes where folks have guns handy) to the higher suicide rates.  Not the place to discuss gun laws but worth mentioning that there is some correlation to gun ownership and rural areas, particularly in the mountain areas.

post #3 of 20

Thanks for posting the link. I'm still reading the article, very interesting.  Check this out.


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.

post #4 of 20

I wonder if it's also indicative of the mentality of those who are interested in living in an area that has so much access to adventure sports, be it skiing, hiking, rafting, climbing, etc. I think for a lot of adventure sport participants the thrill of pushing the limits and cheating death is at least one motivation for many participants. They're people who just can't stand to live in a routine without some new form of excitement in their life. If for some reason they can no longer participate in those activities, or the high they get from them just doesn't do it for them anymore I can see why someone with that personality type would contemplate suicide. 

post #5 of 20

The article does discuss the fact that ski towns have more risk taking personalities living there.

post #6 of 20
Originally Posted by SkiMangoJazz View Post

The article does discuss the fact that ski towns have more risk taking personalities living there.


Yeah, but in a slightly different vein that what my thoughts were. They stated:


 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.


Or in other words that risk takers are more likely to go through with suicide because they're more used to flirting with death. My hypothesis is more along the lines that when you look at the examples in the story--guys in their late 40's and 50's--you see people who have been risk takers for a long time. That takes a toll on the body, and perhaps they just didn't feel like they were physically capable any longer of doing what they needed to do to find happiness in life. Or it could just be that taking risks wasn't giving them the same high anymore to counteract what they were dealing with. 

post #7 of 20

I see your point.

post #8 of 20
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 shack behind a multimillion dollar home, struggling to get by in one of the country’s most idyllic ski towns.

To me this quote is more central to the problem than the risk taking thing. I think suicide is mostly about feeling like a failure. It can be tough to make a living in a ski town, even for driven people with a good work ethic. I knew plenty of older ski bums who worked hard had marketable skills and still didn't have a pot to pee in. Add to that there are few places where wealth inequality is more readily on display and you have a formula for people in that age bracket to feel left out.
post #9 of 20
I think that the Rockies can also be a last stop for people hoping that a where you live will change how you feel - it's a last chances geography.

In other words, people who are struggling may be more likely come here when also otherwise socially isolated, and high mountains don't fix issues with social isolation, but rather reward people who thrive in some degree of social isolation. Wanting to be a ski bum, and wanting to be a social ski bum, are I suspect, radically different things.

In any case, I wonder how much is a transplant problem based on the type of person likely to move here, and the lack of strong cultural grounding (other than 'independence', which probably correlates to suicide rates given the known health benefits of social connectedness). Some of us fit so strongly and drive those best places to live rankings, and some do not despite having sold themselves on the idea.

I am from the east coast, and I felt like it was coming home moving here, but my independent streak is totally dominant. A lot of people don't feel that way and struggle with the significantly different culture than their birthplace, whether they want to admit it or not. Vermont probably correlates here, too. Bucolic, but isolating. And without western skies.

My wife talks openly about those differences and how she feels on the east coast. She loves where we live, but is not an intermountain West culture fit, and culture is extremely meaningful to her as a part of personal social history and experience.

Those things don't mean much to me - I feel so grounded here that it is difficult to leave even for short periods of time. But I think I am a significant minority, and I think there are a lot of people who live here who really are 'on the wrong skis' so to speak, because all things considered including perhaps brain chemistry, it isn't easy. How many people really recognize that moving to high altitude is more difficult than living much farther north than they would ever contemplate?
post #10 of 20

I wonder if these suicides are primarily locally born or folks who moved to the mountains looking for a specific "idealic" lifestyle.  I'll throw out a few more ideas that may apply.


SUNLIGHT, The wide swings in daylight can be depressing to me. It doesn't get light until 8:00 AM in late December and then it seems like it will never get dark in the summer. I find both extremes a little uncomfortable. Not enough daylight in the winter and too much light to get a good nights sleep in the summer. Maybe that's harder to adjust to when you move to it as an adult?


LEISURE ACTIVITIES, Most of the more popular activities in the mountains are primarily or totally individual activities. Hunting, Fishing, Hiking, Riding, Skiing, Climbing etc may al be done with people but they are not team sports and don't encourage much human interaction except during the cocktail hour. Maybe tourists and part timers can come and go in this environment more easily than the Ski Bum types?


SKI BUM, What does this description say about the folks with a problem.? I've known a few folks who took several semesters out of school to work and ski but I've never known someone who I'd consider a ski bum.  Is being a BUM an aspirational lifestyle, ski or otherwise?


MOUNTAIN WEST NATIVES, I'm married to one.  I know them. These are wonderful people but they have an independent streak that I think is different from many other parts of the country. Their grand parents and great grand parents took off for the Plains on horses and wagons overcoming insurmountable odds.  They farm and ranch land that is less hospitable and less productive than the country's breadbasket yet they endure these difficulties with a grace that others may not understand. Most are accustomed to harsh weather, sparse populations and solitude. The present day locals in the mountain west are only two or three generations removed from those original pioneers. Outsiders moving to ski country to be a "ski bum" among these locals may not fit in as well as they would fit in back home.

post #11 of 20

Then again, it could just be the altitude:



post #12 of 20
Does not surprise me that Wyoming is way out front in the suicide statistics. I think it is the wind that eats at your psyche. IMO weather is a bigger factor in mental health than it is given credit for.
Edited by mudfoot - 5/22/16 at 7:24am
post #13 of 20

I have a feeling that the altitude has a lot to do with it.  You don't hear about an above average suicide problem in the hills and the coastal mountains of the West.  Many of the communities are quite isolated and small.  Many people live up long driveways in the woods and have little money, struggling to get by.  It's dark and wet and lonely.  But one thing it's not is high altitude.  Nearly everyone in these mountain valleys and lower slopes lives under 1000' elevation.

Edited by Posaune - 5/22/16 at 11:49am
post #14 of 20
Thread Starter 
I was actually surprised that 3000 feet was such a "high" altitude. I expected that we would be talking 6000 feet and Whitefish would be an anomaly by having a high rate at only 3000 feet, but that first chart takes off right about there around 3000. Seems like you have to descend to 1500 to be more normally suicidal. Personally, the barometric pressure thing seems to affect my migraines the other way -- I have fewer during the winter while I'm spending most days up higher and the weather is "worse". My family calls it "reverse" Seasonal Affective Disorder. I actually dread the summer.
post #15 of 20

Being impoverished and alone as a guy in his middle years could lead to despair, I could totally see that. While being a ski bum sounds romantic, if you kept at it too long you'd one day realize that you're a bum who knows how ski. It'd be hard seeing other guys your same age with careers, families, and otherwise "normal" life trajectories while you're still hanging out with 20 year-olds in the parking lot.


OTOH guys who follow "normal" career trajectories often end up overweight with heart disease and a list of meds a page long by the time they're 50, wondering why they didn't play more while their bodies were capable. How to find the balance?


If you had a social circle of the same demographic then you might not think about what's missing in your life but in a ski town you'd always be looking at mansions and seeing the "haves" come and go while you're a "have-not." 



Related reading: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/suicide-rates-increase-dramatically-among-middle-aged-americans/

Edited by Toecutter - 5/23/16 at 7:36pm
post #16 of 20
Thread Starter 
post #17 of 20

Wow, that article is powerful.  The reader responses were also quite good.  One good excerpt:


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


Seems to me that a population of skiers and risk-takers is always trying to show how their day was spent way cooler than yours.


The altitude issue - never heard of that before.  That's hard to fix when the lowest point in your state is 3099 ft.

post #18 of 20

Judging by the number and poignancy of the comments it generated that article sure seems to have struck a chord.  Should be required reading for the regular flow of young (and old) people who come to EpicSki and ask about moving to a ski town.

post #19 of 20

In terms of the impact of altitude, I wonder what the rates are internationally. I mean, do Nepalese (or whatever mountainous region) living at altitude commit suicide more than other Nepalese? 


Someone mentioned sunlight. I'm in Minneapolis and we have pretty dark winters. I think it is a factor (I think there's research correlation on that as well). You have to be really aggressive around "getting out." -20? Still go for a walk around the lake, for sledding for 20 minutes, go for a skate. I know that's not the problem for the truly, clinically depressed, but I think it helps non-depressives stave off the winter gloom.

post #20 of 20
Thread Starter 
Jobs going unfilled, while affordable housing is just not available: http://flatheadbeacon.com/2016/06/15/job-openings-time-high-flathead-county/

Fortunately, they're finally starting to raise wages.
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