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catching up with building hope

Mental health hardships continue for mountain-resort communities 

For many years people have migrated to Summit County from all over the globe to live the mountain-lifestyle dream. Whether you are chasing the snow and boundless powder days, or devoted to your mountain bike and experiencing the rush of participating in your favorite activity daily, you were intrigued by all that Summit County had to offer. Perhaps you just needed to escape reality, isolate out of a bigger city, or delay the opportunity to truly “grow up.” Regardless of the reason that brought you here, there are unique challenges and hardships often faced in our modest mountain-resort community. 

This  topic has been discussed more and more in the last few years, and while it may feel redundant, it is unfortunately still an area where we need to see improvements. According to the S.M.A.R.T (System-wide Mental Assessment Response Team) statistics, the team received 190 suicide threats in 2022. I can’t help but wonder, how many more attempts were considered in the community that remained unreported? 


Sadly, statistics show the suicide rate in Summit County is over the national average and mental-health issues abound. According to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, Summit County’s suicide rate between 2004 and 2022 was 17.4 deaths per 100,000 people, above the national rate of 14.5. What factors contribute to these statistics and what can we do to improve these numbers?

Yes, it’s true. Summit County thrives and depends on tourism to drive its economy. No one debates this, but how effortless is living in this type of environment? Sharing our favorite trails, parking lots, seats at local restaurants, or dwindling egg supplies with thousands of visitors can be draining. However, deeper issues like housing and childcare shortages for the workforce, large income disparities, lack of diversity, season ending injuries, and transient friends and coworkers can really threaten your mental health. It’s quite natural and common for members of a mountain community to work multiple jobs, compromise on living situations, experience hunger and homelessness, or mask these issues with alcohol and drugs.

Financially it can be a struggle to gain momentum in ski towns. The median home price in Summit County in December 2022 was $970,000, while the median rental rate for one bedroom is $1,402. Saving for a down payment or rent (first month, last month, and deposit) can be virtually impossible for many. For those who can afford these prices, they often find themselves in a lottery style competition with friends and coworkers ambitious for the same outcome. Many settle for unfavorable living conditions, or simply leave the area because every other option has been expelled. Local businesses and organizations also suffer with a decrease in employees, while overworking the remaining staff, which leads to inevitable burnout. Local programs, such as Unshelthered, were introduced because of the large demand for safely parking and living out of your vehicle.

Building Hope’s Executive Director Jen McAtamney said, “When I look at data and when I look at the incidents, the biggest thing I see is that this can be a very tough place to work and live.” She added: “Summit County is a beautiful place, but there’s something called the paradise paradox. … a feeling that the peace and quiet of a beautiful area will solve your problems. But the reality when people move here is that the cost of living is incredibly high and job wages are very low relative to our cost of living.”

Many people lose their support system when coming to Summit County, moving away from friends and family. Friends, neighbors and coworkers come and go, making it a struggle to find new inner circles of support. A lack of diversity for members of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC community can make people feel lonely and out of place. Depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues increase without strong human connections.

It’s no secret that Summit County is full of extreme athletes and adrenaline junkies. We often push ourselves physically, or challenge each other to reach the highest peak or get there faster. Head injuries, whiplash, and concussions rate in the top 5 injuries for skiers and snowboarders. Mood injuries and an increase in depression and anxiety are extremely common with these injuries. Blowing out your knee or experiencing a season-ending injury can also bring you to a dark place, taking away your ability to participate in the activities that brought you here in the first place. It can be grueling to watch the snow fall, laid up from an injury unable to participate in a favorite hobby.

Over the twenty years I spent in Summit County I watched countless friends and coworkers come and go, snow conditions thrive and dwindle, and issues like housing and employee shortages get worse. However, there is a constant that has remained available for Summit County locals at any time day or night, ready to reward you after a long shift at work, support you after a hard day, or simply comfort you when feeling lonely. Whether it is a shot, beer, or bump you crave, it is readily available at any given hour of the day. Substance abuse from drugs and alcohol continues to escalate and remain a large problem for many in the high country. In 2021 Summit County saw 18 deaths due to substance abuse and alcohol – 9 to drug overdoses (5 with fentanyl) and 9 to alcohol overuse.

building Hope catchup header

My final thought on mental health in mountain communities relates to living up to society’s standards for a successful life. Beginning as children we have been bred to follow the unwritten list of rules, complete each step, and check the boxes of success as we grow up: career, marriage, homeownership, and children are large bullet points on this list. Like many of my ski and snowboard bum friends of the community, I can relate to feeling like the black sheep of the family and constantly answering questions about when I plan to “grow up.” It can feel emotionally and mentally draining to constantly be on the defensive about getting a “real job”, when you plan to settle down to marry or have kids, or why you don’t own a home. While my unconventional life may not fit society’s standards, I try hard to focus on the positives for myself, and those around me in my community, while making my own list of priorities. You don’t owe anyone an explanation of what makes you happy and what your personal list of goals looks like.

While housing and workforce issues can likely only improve with a change in local laws and regulations, how can we personally make small adjustments to enhance the community’s mental health? 

* Take advantage of local resources. More information at Building Hope Summit County

* Attend a free Connectedness Event or local gathering in the community to begin building a local support circle Building Hope Events Calendar.

*Talk about mental health and reduce the stigma around it. Speaking about these issues with other people when you are ready will help inspire others to not feel alone. Support groups or therapy are 2 options. More information here at Building Hope Resources.

*If you own a restaurant or small business, offer a mocktail list on your menu. Take away shift drinks and reward employees in other ways. Schedule and plan sober social events to help normalize having fun without alcohol. 

*Check in regularly with your friends, family, neighbors and coworkers.

*Vote in local and national elections, participate and attend local events like Town Council meetings or informative events- be involved. 

One of the best things about Summit County is the mix of people who have gathered for a variety of shared interests. Sure, you have your friends that you ski with, drink with, work with, or live with. But what do you truly know about them? And what are their struggles? We are all on a different journey and some of us may just be trying hard to get through the day. As I continue my work with Building Hope, I offer a place of honesty and vulnerability on a personal level to help others know they are not alone. My mental health is a constant work in progress. I can relate to struggling through life in the high country, working multiple jobs, dealing with injuries, masking issues with substances, and living up to society’s standards. I continue to work on these things daily and hope I can encourage others to also accept assistance. Practice kindness, patience and understanding to those you encounter each day. Ask for help if you are having trouble quitting alcohol or drugs. Reach out if you find yourself questioning your next move. We are here and ready to help. 

Article by Alyse Piburn, special projects writer for Building Hope Summit County. If you have a story to share, reach out to her at alyse@buildinghopesummit.org.
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