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.
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.
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 at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org