Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of TORMENT and its members.
Last January, Torment published an article by Dr. Kristen Fuller which attempted to cover the varied causes of mental health problems in mountain towns. The article dedicated two short sections to suicide and isolation, identifying a lack of supportive social circles and transient lifestyles as major causes. This was followed by brief sections on income disparity, substance abuse, low oxygen levels and “Peter Pan Syndrome” before abruptly ending, saying “something needs to change.” As a former ski town resident with a long history of mental health and substance abuse problems myself, this left me with a lot of questions.
I lived in ski towns for almost ten years. Six of those were spent in Summit County, Colorado, the center of Colorado’s ski and snowboard scene. I was drunk for most of this period, lost and following the path of heroin-addict-turned-functional-alcoholic; a relatively common one in the world of addiction. Breckenridge provided the perfect culture for a continued existence as an alcoholic, a culture that veiled the dark social reality of the ”snowboard/ski-bum” lifestyle that Dr. Fuller partially illustrates. I’m sure this piece resonated with many who’ve had similar experiences.
But what does this leave us with? What is it that needs to change? Is there something at the root of all this? Should we go buy a canister of oxygen so we can up our intake? Do we need to grow up and out of wanting to live a life of adventure? What actual solutions does Fuller argue for? None: no solutions or substantial explanations are offered. Fuller is merely pointing out some fairly obvious problems.
And that’s fine, a lot of people live privileged lives in the mountains, ignorant of socioeconomic forces that push those less financially fortunate into situations of precarity and desperation. We should absolutely be writing to draw more attention to these things; May is an especially good time, seeing as these problems tend to sharpen with the end of winter and onset of “mud season.” But we also need some deeper analysis to identify the causes of this malaise, and a real course of action we can follow to address it. That course of action exists, and has for hundreds of years.
At the beginning of the article, Fuller quotes Heather Hansman, the author of Powder Days, regarding the problems mentioned in the article:
“Now with COVID, more people are moving to ski towns… From resort mismanagement and lack of housing, it's more amplified. In a lot of ways, ski towns are a microscope for bigger social issues, and they're hitting these places first."
It is absolutely incorrect to suggest that the innumerable problems of American society are best understood through the microcosm of the ski town. Ski town residents undoubtedly experience these problems, however the phenomena of poor people (historically, a disproportionate amount of them being people of color) being forced out of desirable places to live is a tale that’s been told for centuries. The phenomena of people not making enough money to make ends meet has existed in poor communities since the rise of a specific economic system, where one class of people works for wages and another class pockets the surplus produced by the former. hat system is capitalism.
Yes, capitalism. While it is sometimes thought of as the economic system which humans use to produce and sell everything they need, there’s a lot more to it. We are all collectively feeling the effects of economic pressures, and philosopher Carlos Garrido points to a larger picture:
“While the majority of working class Americans face difficulties in meeting their everyday needs, the richest monopolists in the country, those who own what we watch, buy, and eat, have been getting richer than ever before.
However, the crisis most Americans are facing is not limited to their economic conditions. It is, instead, a comprehensive crisis which has tripled into all spheres of life, expressing itself through profound psychological and social ills. These can be seen in the millions affected by the opioid epidemic; in the rise in violent crime rates and school shootings; and in the mental health crisis where nearly a third of American adults are struggling with depression and anxiety”
This world of competition, commodification and profit produces myriad forms of alienation, which manifest as the pathologies described by Garrido above. Fuller does speak to some of these problems, but fails to name the source. She does, however, begin to scratch the surface:
“Ski towns thrive on tourism, and individuals who work in the tourism industry must be able to survive on minimum wage. These financial burdens can create feelings of stress and depression, which can also potentially add to the increase in suicide rates. As much as these towns rely on tourism to survive, the local workforce is necessary to allow for ski towns to exist.”
The last sentence of this passage is the crux of the matter, “the local workforce is necessary to allow for ski towns to exist.” Working class populations are absolutely indispensable to the functioning of every single sphere of industry in this country, yet all throughout America we are confronted by stagnant wages and rapid inflation. It is becoming increasingly challenging for us to meet our basic needs. What can we workers, the very group who keep this coveted “economy” afloat, do?
Fuller is a licensed medical professional, and it’s safe to assume there’s an implicit solution contained within the article: therapy. Depression, suicide, “Peter Pan Syndrome,” all these afflictions can be combatted by sitting in a room with a proffessional. I for one am an unwavering advocate for therapy. As mentioned above, I have a long history with depression, substance abuse, and even suicide (attempted in 2010). Without therapy and other forms of mental health treatment, I wouldn’t be typing these words today.
So shouts out to Torment and Dr. Fuller for drawing more awareness to the stigma surrounding mental health. Everyone needs therapy, especially the white men who make up a large portion of mountain town populations. But it most definitely is not “Peter Pan Syndrome” that needs to be addressed with them. Fuller describes this condition as “a set of behaviors in adults who never seem to grow up. These individuals often refuse to adopt adult responsibilities and commitment… and have a fond nostalgia for their youth.” This diagnosis (one not recognized by the medical community) fails to acknowledge a deeper current that Fuller hints at with her mentions of domestic abuse: that of white male entitlement, misogyny, queerphobia, racism and toxicity. These characteristics are inextricably linked not just to ski and snowboard culture, but American capitalist culture in general; as demonstrated by movements like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and the struggle for Trans Liberation. And while there has been a radical awakening amongst Americans regarding these issues, the apolitical nature of ski towns, paired with some clearly visible demographics (almost everyone is white), slow the penetration of progressive trends into these areas. Shouts out to Torment again for highlighting the need to combat these things.
But there’s a problem with hyperfocusing on the need for therapy and mental health awareness: therapy is an individualized solution to a systemic problem. Individual work to develop skills and tools that help us cultivate a healthy existence is an objectively good thing, but it has its limits, especially when we consider the economic situation of those who require mental health treatment.
When we think of mountain towns, poverty is not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s far easier to think of drunk spring days in the park or late nights out partying with friends, but there is massive and increasing economic disparity between workers and business owners, be they small businesses or Vail resorts itself. It’s imperative to understand that our economic position is a major determinant of our overall well being, especially our mental health. A piece from The Psychiatric times illustrates this problem:
“The evidence is strong for a causal relationship between poverty and mental health. However, findings suggest that poverty leads to mental health and developmental problems that in turn prevent individuals and families from leaving poverty, creating a vicious, intergenerational cycle of poverty and poor health.”
While we must recognize the clear differences between cycles of poverty in a truly impoverished community versus a mountain town, there are also some glaring similarities. People generally live paycheck to paycheck and work multiple jobs, just so that they can pay exorbitant prices for rent and their basic necessities. Even then, many are unable to live in the towns where they earn their living, an article from Outsider Magazine brings up some troubling statistics:
“…in Pitkin County, where Aspen is located, just 40 percent of workers live where they work; in the North Tahoe–Truckee region in California, that figure is only 50 percent; and Vail houses less than 30 percent of its workforce.”.
These statistics and conditions are dismissed as “the way it is,” a sacrifice one must be willing to make to live the mountain lifestyle. But this dismissive sentiment is a fatal error; if it continues to prevail, the ski town lifestyle—which has always had its own racial and financial barriers—will soon be out of reach for many more. Fuller points out similar dynamics in Mammoth, comparing the town budgets for affordable housing and tourism, but she once again fails to elaborate any solutions. As stated above, those solutions exist.
We are told everywhere that we live in a free country that offers countless opportunities to prosper and live the lives we dream of. But what freedom exists in the workplace? How can we consider ourselves free when we’re constantly subjected to the authority of owners and managers, shareholders and CEOs? Vail resorts amasses a 27.5% increase in profits while their employees barely scrape by, restaurant owners vacation in the Caribbean while every night their workers clock out and drink themselves into oblivion, and landlords walk all over powerless tenants, raising rent and evicting those who may fall behind due to unforeseen circumstances. This isn’t unique to ski towns, but is a common problem faced by a growing number of Americans. The first step to fighting back is unions.
There has been an uptick in labor and housing rights activism over the years; even ski patrollers have caught on to the trend and have unionized to fight for better rights. But the majority of the service-oriented workforce remain vulnerable and exposed to the capricious nature of their bosses, managers and landlords. It is imperative for workers and tenants to combine and collectively demand more from a class whose frenzied and competitive race to accumulate untold amounts of wealth continuously exacerbates these problems.
Better working conditions, better pay, better benefits, cheaper rent, better housing conditions: these factors all contribute to the well-being and mental health of working class people. Confronting the labor and housing crisis collectively is our only chance of solving these commonly felt pressures, which constrain and prevent us from living happy lives. These struggles can also help to break down the racial and financial barriers mentioned above.
Any private workplace can be unionized. If 30% of the employees are in favor of unionization and sign a petition, the National Labor Relations Board will conduct an election, and then the employer must negotiate with union representatives for a fair contract. Rental complexes can also unionize; tenants can combine to demand fairer rent, better maintenance, and to protect each other from unfair evictions.
It’s obvious that this is no easy task, since most working people barely have time between multiple jobs and trying to maintain a healthy and happy life. A long history of anti-union policy and propaganda has considerably weakened unions and distorted their image, and the general public is rarely exposed to information regarding these institutions. But these roadblocks are surmountable, the brave Starbucks and Amazon workers who make up part of the burgeoning labor movement here in the US provide us with an inspiring and beautiful example of union struggle.
Onward past unions
Unions are but a first step in addressing the crises unfolding all around us. When we observe the class makeup of various town councils, we can see that it is not only economic power that lies with the propertied classes, but political power as well. Aside from two semi-progressive members, the remaining members of Breckenridge town council are business owners and real estate developers who undoubtedly keep their business interests in mind at all times while handling the town’s affairs.
There have been small, symbolic efforts on the part of various mountain town governments to combat these issues. But every time policies that favor the working class are proposed in these areas, “concerned community members” raise a fuss, touting the importance of tourism and short term rentals for the economy, and making the same tired arguments against anything that helps the visibly struggling classes below them. We know who these “concerned community members” are, and the only way to combat their influence is through working class involvement in the political arena.
So it’s on us, as workers, to develop unions and political organizations in order to educate and organize our workplaces and homes, to end the continued and abject domination of business owners and landlords over the people who they’re dependent on for their livelihoods, and to create the conditions that allow for healthy and happy lives. It’s on us to work to understand how the pressures we feel locally are connected to broader global trends, and how this global economic system shapes and conditions everything from local housing markets to race and gender relations. It’s on us to make these very necessary transformations. Fuller’s attempt to raise awareness is a step in the right direction, but we need some concrete solutions, we can’t wait around much longer.
Credits and Sources
The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism, Carlos L. Garrido
Midwestern Marx Publishing Press (March 20, 2023)
Addressing poverty and mental illness, Kevin M. Simon, MD & Michaela Beder, MD
Psychiatric Times (June 29, 2018)
How to Save a Ski town, Gloria Liu
Outside journal (November 15, 2021)