Depression and Suicide in Mountain Towns: Exploring the Undercurrents of Living the Powder Dream

Mountain towns may give the impression of endless turns and bluebird skies, but Dr. Fuller reveals a deeper undercurrent to living the powder dream.

Depression and Suicide in Mountain Towns: Exploring the Undercurrents of Living the Powder Dream

Mountain towns may give the impression of endless turns and bluebird skies, but Dr. Fuller reveals a deeper undercurrent to living the powder dream.

January 10, 2023
Words By Dr. Kristen Fuller

It is a fairly common dream for those of us who love to ski to be able to live in a ski town year around. Who wouldn't want to spend their days in a place that most people visit just a few days a year, skiing every day and chasing pow at every opportunity? Living in Mammoth Lakes, California, a stunningly famous ski town in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range, is a dream with a deep side of darkness that is rarely discussed.

When I think of Mammoth Lakes, I think of fresh powder, larger-than-life pine trees, rugged mountain peaks, sparkling alpine lakes, deep red sunsets, and bright-colored ski outfits. Still, I also am riddled with the deep dark undercurrents of the reality of Mammoth and other ski towns alike. When you take a look at these undercurrents of a ski town, most people are surprised to find out that it is more than fresh turns and big backcountry days. I have seen too many of my friends drown in alcohol and drugs, and become so depressed that getting out of bed to ski powder is nearly impossible. From homelessness and domestic abuse to severe depression and suicide, the dark side of ski towns is heartbreaking and is continuously swept under the rug to protect the image of "having the best powder day ever." 

Like many mountain towns and ski communities, Mammoth primarily relies on tourism to survive and thrive, which causes a tricky balance resulting in a housing shortage, economic disparities, corporatization, and a lack of diversity; creating huge barriers to being able to survive and thrive living in a ski town. As a result, locals struggle with their mental health and substance misuse at extremely high rates. 

The combination of isolation, Peter Pan syndrome, income disparity, and lack of support for the local communities lead many to misuse alcohol and drugs while pushing ourselves even harder in the outdoors to chase the dream. Don't get me wrong; I love living in Mammoth; it is my home, but I am constantly heartbroken and infuriated when tourism is the first priority while the deep dark realities are hidden. When people say, "we are lucky to live here," I struggle with this because we work extremely hard to live here. Many people live in their cars in the dead of winter, working three jobs to make ends meet. It isn't luck. It is a very intentional lifestyle that comes with many big sacrifices. 

I think about these struggles all the time. After reading Heather Hansman's book "Powder Days," the issue weighed even heavier on my heart, especially after COVID amplified the dark undercurrents of ski towns. 

"Now with COVID, more people are moving to ski towns, all those things that were part of the book are still there, and the issues have become more inflamed. 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."

-Heather Hansman, author of Powder Days

Suicide rates in ski towns

Sadly, it is not uncommon to hear about a string of suicides that recently occurred. From Vail, South Lake Tahoe, and Jackson to Mammoth Lakes, Sun Valley, and Park City, suicide rates seem to be much higher in ski towns compared to bigger cities, and the lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment in these towns is alarming. Yet, ironically many of these places are often listed as the "top places to live in the United States." They are stunningly beautiful, have a quaint feel, and offer a slow-paced lifestyle, but these places are not for everyone.

    Let's talk about the potential underlying reasons:


    Small ski towns are isolating. The lack of crowds and the absence of the hustle and bustle of big cities is what draws people to live in these beautiful mountain towns, especially when most big towns are only a few hours drive to the mountains. Many people move to ski towns to escape, whether escaping from the hustle and bustle of a big city or running away from deeply rooted internal turmoil. Unfortunately, these underlying problems we are running away from will follow us to these ski towns. Many of us use drugs and alcohol as unhealthy coping mechanisms to bury our problems even deeper. 

    Finding a supportive social circle is challenging, especially in a small town where talk is cheap, waves of false rumors spread like wildfire, and highschool minded cliques are prevalent. There is a lot of underlying fear and trauma of not fitting in. Meeting a solid, supportive social group of healthy-minded adults is a huge challenge.

    I wanted to live a simpler life in the heart of my favorite mountain range, but I gave up my social life as a result. No matter how introverted an individual is, we, as humans, thrive on social connections. We need to feel loved and wanted, even if we deeply love ourselves, and maintain a healthy outlook on life.

    Additionally, the transient nature of the ski town community leads to less meaningful relationships and can leave people feeling lonely. It is not uncommon for people to move to a ski town for one season and realize it is not the right fit or find it too hard to thrive and move away. With an influx and outflow of new people, it can be hard to grow roots in the community. 

    Living in isolation can contribute to depression and substance abuse. Studies have shown that intergenerational relationships and deep social attachments protect against suicide, and without authentic social connection, we are at risk. 

    Income disparity

    Real estate has been on the upswing in ski towns, especially for second homeowners using these properties as an investment via short-term rentals. Short-term rentals such as VRBO and Airbnb have contributed to the increase in property values and the shortage of homes available for first-time homebuyers or long-term renters. COVID has amplified this crisis even more, with remote workers leaving the big cities to "live the dream" in small mountain towns.

    The town of Mammoth Lakes rakes in big money from TOT (transient occupancy tax) through short-term tourist rentals and distributes thousands of dollars of these earnings back to the tourism board leadership. The director of Mammoth Lakes Tourism received nearly $30,000 in annual bonuses based on the TOT, placing his end-of-year salary, after the bonus and raise, at $246,734.35.

    "The year-end bonus was based on feedback from staff evaluations as well as a self-evaluation from Urdi. It included $9,579.85 in TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) metrics, $9,579.85 in TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) metrics, $5,109.25 from an MLT Board evaluation, and $3,193.28 from an MLT staff evaluation. Beyond salary and bonus, Urdi also enjoys perks including family health care, 401k, company vehicle, family Ikon passes, and family golf passes."

    The director of Mammoth Lakes Housing makes half this salary. Mammoth Lakes Housing, the official name for affordable workforce housing, receives a tiny fraction of money from the town compared to Mammoth Lakes Tourism. 

    When locals are working 2-3 jobs, earning minimum wage, and living in their cars to survive, this income disparity is hard to swallow. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer because of the housing crisis and low-wage jobs. For example, the median sales price of a single-family home in Mammoth Lakes is approximately $1 million, while the estimated per capita income is under $50,000.

    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 entire ecosystem will crumble if these people cannot afford to live here. Tourists and locals are a transactional relationship; at the end of the day, we are all here to ski powder and get after it in the backcountry.

    This trend is not only seen in Mammoth Lakes but in ski towns (and touristy small towns) across the U.S.

    Mental illness and substance abuse while living in paradise

    A bump of cocaine, a line of ketamine, a microdose of mushrooms, a vape pen, and a swig of booze is just a regular Tuesday night in Mammoth. It is not uncommon to walk into a bar any day before noon and see every seat taken. There is a bar at every corner in town and watering holes all over the mountain, and as a result, you are just one chair lift away from your next drink. The Apres party scene has blown up, and I sometimes wonder if skiing is just an excuse to party. Drinking and using drugs has been an enormous parallel in the ski and snowboard culture, creating nostalgia for a feel-good party lifestyle. "Play hard, ski hard," as many say, usually that "playing" consists of drinking and drug use. 

    Depression is always multifactorial, meaning many underlying triggers can contribute to this mental health disorder. However, loneliness, financial stress, and substance abuse are three common factors that often go hand-in-hand with depression. In addition, substance abuse, whether it is alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, or cocaine abuse, can contribute to depression and anxiety, often creating the need to use more to curb these unwanted feelings.

    On the other hand, mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety can trigger the need to use alcohol and drugs as unhealthy coping mechanisms. In a mountain culture that is so accepting of alcohol and drug use, it is easy to get into this downward spiral, which can potentially be life-threatening. The cycle of addiction and mental health continues to repeat until the two become intertwined.

    It is not normal or healthy to drink every day, despite what the popular ski town culture is prophesying. 

    Lack of oxygen 

    Our brains and bodies need oxygen to function, and most ski towns rest at least 8,000 feet above sea level. The higher elevation means less oxygen in the air (specifically, the saturation is the same, but the partial pressure is affected by altitude), thereby creating an increase in metabolic stress in our bodies, leaving our bodies and brains stressed. Our bodies learn to thrive with less oxygen over time, but there is still research hypothesizing that insufficient oxygen can contribute to depression and anxiety.

     "According to a 2018 Utah University study, low atmospheric pressure at altitude can create lower blood oxygen levels, causing a decrease in the brain's serotonin levels (a mood-boosting hormone). The study also found that lower oxygen levels impair energy flow in the brain. Unfortunately, lower energy flows, oxygen levels, and serotonin concentrations are all associated with depression in individuals. 

    Another study, conducted in 2014 by the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, suggests a similar link between altitude and depression levels. According to this study, which analyzed population-based data, sociodemographic and environmental factors like high altitude can increase suicide rates, especially at altitudes higher than 2,000 and 3,000 feet." 

    Peter Pan Syndrome

    Part of the ski town culture is "having the best day ever." I am very guilty of this phrase, and it becomes a point where you are always chasing this dopamine rush of "having the best day ever" in the outdoors. Everyone is always having an awesome time, and if you are not, there is this preconceived notion that something is wrong with you. 

    Being a badass, pushing limits, and adventuring daily often plays into this fantasy dream of never growing up, a common theory known as Peter Pan Syndrome. Mammoth, like many other ski towns, is Neverland. 

    Peter Pan Syndrome is a popular psychology term used to describe a set of behaviors in adults who never seem to grow up. These individuals often refuse to adopt adult responsibilities and commitment, partake in impulsive behaviors, fear loneliness, struggle with maintaining healthy relationships, struggle with work or a career and have a fond nostalgia for their youth. Dr. Dan Kiley coined the term in his 1983 book, The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. A year later, he published The Wendy Dilemma, outlining the difficulties of young females in relationships with "Peter Pans."

    I wonder if I will watch someone I know overdose in the bathroom at a local bar on a Saturday night, practically in front of me. 

    I wonder how many more members of our community will be forced to live in their cars this winter because there is no housing available, let alone affordable housing.  

    I wonder how many more beautiful lives will be taken by suicide this holiday season. 

    Something needs to change; we need to start talking about the reality of living in a ski town, we need to start helping our communities, and we need to start holding others accountable. 

    If you are curious to learn more about the culture of ski towns, I encourage you to read "Powder Days," it's a realistic account of the reality and future of ski towns. It is beautifully written and has greatly impacted many individuals living the ski town life.