I was at work recently when a man came up to me to order a hot dog. I recognised his face and then remembered that he had been in my AST1 course in Niseko, Japan in 2013. I went out and reintroduced myself and he was stoked that he remembered me as well. We got talking and he showed me his telemark bindings that he built entirely himself and I told him how I’ve been travelling around the world skiing. Being a ski bum himself, who camps at the base of the mountain every weekend to go skiing, he was so happy that I’d been chasing the ski bum dream.
But he did say something to me that I wanted to share with all my skier friends. It was something that I had kind of noticed in my life but didn’t think was anything worthy of discussion.
The Suicide Belt
My custom tele building friend, James, told me that although he was elated on my skiing expeditions, he had a warning for me. He had recently read an article about the well documented but rarely publicised phenomenon of the Suicide Belt. The Rocky Mountains in North America has suicide increasing at an alarming rate. Ski bums are going up into the mountains and shooting themselves.
Too be honest, although I hadn’t heard of the phenomenon before, I wasn’t surprised when he told me about this. He made me promise that if I ever got close to that edge, that I wouldn’t cross it and that I would reach out because I’m not alone.
I was very thankful for his message. There have been times when I’ve questioned myself and felt guilty because the life I lead sometimes doesn’t make me happy. I’m glad I’m not the only one.
Let’s skim over some of the reasons why people in the ski industry are climbing up the mountains that bring them so much joy only to blow their brains out when the sun rises. I’ve scoured the internet and looked at the life I’ve had, as well as many other ski bum friends, and found the common reasons as to why this is happening.
- You are broke
Ski resorts are designed for people on holiday. The prices are designed for people on holiday. You are on minimum wage. It gets hard. People that live in resorts are commonly working more than one job. In Revelstoke I had 4. Presently, I have three.
“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.” Kelley McMillan, 2016, National Geographic
- You have best friends for 6 months. Then you may never see them again
Ski bums have a lack of deep social connections. Sometimes I look around a room and I think
“Shit. No one in this room has known me longer than 4 months”
and sometimes that can break you down. You can’t talk about issues or problems, small or large, because these people don’t know you. It would be a weird over share. But then all of a sudden you spend years in that social situation and no one really knows what’s going on with you. I didn’t think my mental health was that bad until I finally returned home and saw my old friends. I was so overwhelmed with how stoked everyone was to see me. I didn’t think anyone would really care or notice me being home!
The thing about mental health is you don’t realise you’re spiralling down. Seeing everyone was a wake up call for me. I didn’t realise how important friendships can be in keeping you sane. I guess we are pack animals after all.
“…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.” (McMillan, 2016)
- You live in the most beautiful places in the world! Your life has to be perfect right! Wrong.
Living in paradise can sometimes make it worse. People always say to me
“You’re living the dream!” or “I wish I could do what you do” or
“You’re so lucky”
So when something isn’t right, the depression can be amplified. ‘“People have ideas of how things should be. 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.” John McIntosh, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend’ (McMillan, 2016)
- Good luck being happy after munching on all those drugs and drinking all those beers.
Ski resorts are fun. And they are full of epic parties! However doing MDMA every weekend and drinking excessively for six months is going to destroy your mental health. Come downs are real and add to the already slightly sour mix that is ski resort life.
These are just some of the reasons that people are disapperaing in the mountains forever. I haven’t even touched on the scientifically documented effects of concussions on mental health, vitamin D defieciency or altitude effects on the brain. Furthermore there are other social factors like the debilitating “snowmance” break ups that happen when the end of winter marks an inevitable expiration date for the current ‘love of your life’.
So yes, I get to spend my time surfing around mountains with my friends. But it puts me at super high risk of skiing off the edge of one.
When James and I reached this point in our discussion, he had well and truly finished his hot dog and I should probably have gone back to work. But this was becoming one of the more important conversations I’d had in a while. He told me that he has a large back ground in mental health. He explained to me that these ski bums don’t realise that they are spiralling out of control. They miss all the usual signs of mental health depletion and then when it finally comes to light, it’s too late. The lack of social structure, access to health care and stability in life numbs people from noticing anything that is wrong.
A recent campaign that flooded Facebook, #itsokaytotalk, highlighted mens mental health. It’s important that we loose this stigma associated with mental health. It’s okay to feel like shit, but it’s not okay to do nothing about it.
If anyone ever needs it – I’ll be there to listen.
A running joke in skiing is knee injuries. It’s completely acceptable to see someone hobbling around on crutches. It’s even customary to say “Which knee is your bad one?” and not “Do you have a bad knee?”. The brain is just an organ, why is it taboo to think that it might not work properly?
Imagine if people said:
“My brain feels like shit. Can we head in for an early apres and talk it out?”
“Woah dude, you seem kinda stressed. Want me to help you out with a mood reconstruction?”
We are so quick to shout “RICE! Rest Ice Compression Elevation!” and we should have one for mental health.
Let’s change that.
Introducing SLUSH. Speak, Listen, Understand, Solution, Hug.
Speak up if you feel like shit. Or if you notice someone slipping, speak up!
Listen to what people say. Don’t brush it off.
Understand the other person and discuss whats going on so that you can come up with a
Hug it out. Because cuddles are great.
I’ve already seen amazing not-for-profits start up like Shred the Stigma, Campaigns like R U OK? and rail jams held to raise money for Black Dog Institute. I’d really like to get something rolling, but I can’t do it alone. I have a lot of friends across many resorts in many different countries with a range of expertise and I think it would be cool to see who wants to get involved. Whether this means sumitting every mountain in North America, holding an event, slapping stickers at every resort or having a raging kegger to raise money, I don’t mind. But we have got to stop people, quality, outdoorsy, snow loving people, from taking their own lives. I refuse to tolerate living alongside a community where suicide is so prevalent that it gets its own chilling name “The Suicide Belt”. That is bloody ridiculous in my books.
Let me know if you want to be part of the change. When I have a team together we can brainstorm a way to get everyone back on track and enjoying living in the mountains. See my contact page for information.
Until next time,
McMillan, K, 2016, ‘Why are ski towns seeing more suicides’, National Geographic, May 16 http://adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/16/why-are-ski-towns-suicides-happening-at-such-an-alarming-rate/