If you’ve been keeping up with the news (or even just reading this issue of Source), you’ll know that mental health is the current topic on everyone’s lips. Everywhere we look we’re shown shocking statistics, news and firsthand accounts of what’s going on in people’s brains. And if we’re not always feeling good, the fact that it’s being talked about more openly than ever is good. With everyone from sportspeople to politicians opening up about their mental health, alongside the recent news that the UK government will channel an extra £2bn into mental health services, it seems we’re on the right track.
Translate this to skiing and snowboarding. A quick Google search will tell you about the benefits winter sports can have on our mental health. Charities and organisations like Snow-Camp and the Boob y Trap channel snow sports as a positive influence to youngsters, providing goals to work towards and teaching leadership skills. Exercise and spending time outdoors is also prescribed as an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. And this is absolutely true for a lot of people, whether it’s the yearly ski holiday, weekly trip to the snowdome or working a winter season. People come to the mountains to get away from the monotony of the nine-to-five or to escape their stressful, high-pressure jobs with huge commutes. Some of the best chalet hosts I know moved to the mountains because they craved a simpler life with more time to do what they loved.
A little further down the search rankings in Google you’ll find a small collection of articles that depict the other side of seasonal life, and the potential long-term effects of irregular work, money troubles and the rising cost of living in ski resorts. Athletes like big mountain skier Jackie Passo, Olympic medallist Gus Ken worthy and skier and filmmaker Mike Douglas have all talked openly about depression in interviews. At the same time publications like National Geographic, NPR and The Guardian have reported on high suicide rates in North America’s Rocky Mountain States. ‘T he suicide belt’, as it’s been coined, houses some of the world’s most renowned ski towns, like Aspen, Jackson Hole and Telluride. Even the stunning traveller’s paradise, Queenstown, New Zealand, brought in a permanent psychiatrist in 2018 after a rise in the rate of suicide calls to the local police department.
Closer to home, the desperately sad deaths by suicide of British professional snowboarders Ellie Soutter and Nelson Pratt illustrate that under its shiny surface, ‘living the dream’ can look very different from the inside. And while being outside and doing physical activity is often cited as being good for your mental wellbeing, it’s estimated that around 600 farmers die by suicide every year in rural France, although many of these are reported as accidents to avoid stigma. In fact, France has had one of the highest suicide rates in Europe for many years, with unconfirmed rumours that Moûtiers, a pass-through town nestled deep in the Tarentaise valley surrounded by ski resorts, holds the highest suicide rate in France because of its lack of sunlight.
No-one really knows what causes these higher cases of depression among ski town residents. After all, depression affects everyone differently and can be caused by a variety of factors. But the most commonly reoccurring best guesses cite money worries, poor living conditions and the hectic, transient lifestyle associated with seasonal towns. Ski resorts are notorious for catering to some of the wealthiest people in the world; they’re the places where broke ski bums live in cramped apartments next door to luxury catered chalets; where it’ s possible to be paid less than minimum wage in exchange for a bed in a room of four and a lift pass; where the pressure to cram skiing, work, making new friends and partying into a five month period can become exhausting.
Then there’s the lack of fulfilling work available, particularly in France, where many people move unable to speak the language and therefore feel limited to working in tourism. There’s the locals’ culture fuelled by cliquey cool kids and social media; the parties you don’t want to miss; the friends you’ll make over the winter and then never see again; the sometimes false idea that moving to the mountains you see in your Instagram feed will solve all your problems. And when you realise it won’t, there’s also the stigma that comes with admitting you’re not happy, despite living in a picture postcard destination, doing sports you love and surrounded by crowds of creative, happy and carefree people.
So what can we do if we’re feeling the downsides of mountain life? Some people will never feel them at all, and some people feel them acutely. As with the causes of depression, there’s no singular answer, but as Ellie Soutter’s mother Lorraine says, “it’ s OK not to be OK”. For some people, the path to feeling better means taking medication, for some it means talking to a professional and for others it means a regular diet of outdoors time, doing what they enjoy.
In fact, some of the easier ways to take care of our mental health are easiest to do in mountains, and are often related to our reasons for living in them in the first place. The UK Mental Health Foundation’s ten step guide, ‘How to Look After Your Mental Health’ includes some pretty tricky pieces of advice, such as ‘talk about your feelings’, ‘drink sensibly’, ‘ eat well’ and ‘accept who you are’, which can be particularly tough when working and living seasonally. But the guide also includes some slightly less soul-searching tips, like staying active, taking a break when things get too overwhelming, doing things you enjoy and are good at, and helping others.
Helping others is a particularly important one; while Ellie Soutter and Nelson Pratt were taken from us too soon, what they’ve left behind is dedicated to helping others in similar situations. Ellie ’s parents have set up the Ellie Soutter Foundation to help young athletes with the financial expenses of competing and training, while Ride on Nelly is a yearly road bike tour that celebrates the life of Nelson Pratt. Every year the event raises thousands of pounds for The CALM Zone, a UK charity fighting male suicide.
As with anything mental health related, getting back on form or helping someone else is not always simple. But it’ s good to know that when seasonal life is getting you down, you’re not alone, and there are steps you can take to feel better.
If you need someone to talk to, you can visit any of the local medical centres for a referral to a counsellor. There are also many online services available, including counselling over Skype or instant messenger. Visit samaritans.org or betterhelp.com for more information.