On the surface, workers in Canadian ski resort towns are “living the dream”: skiing or riding every day, immersed in popular vacation destinations, and surrounding themselves with like-minded people. However, the “ski bum” lifestyle is not always a carefree experience, and workers in resort towns are not exempt from mental health struggles.
At the core of every resort town are employees from all over Canada and the world. Winston Fadeeff was one of those employees for 10 years, working at various resorts in British Columbia, Alberta, Japan and Australia.
“I left university because I was having mental health difficulties there,” Fadeeff says. As a passionate skier, he wanted to become a part of the industry and the overall community.
“Ski towns and the resort industry do quite often sell themselves as tight-knit communities,” he explains. “I felt like the ski industry and ski communities were different from the rest of the world.”
According to Rocky Mountain Outlook, Banff and Canmore – two of the most popular resort towns in Alberta – have seen yearly suicide rates that go well above the provincial average. In 2014, Banff recorded 32 suicide deaths per 100,000 people, while the overall provincial suicide rate was 13.4 deaths per 100,000 people.
Researchers at the University of Utah have linked higher altitudes to an increased risk of suicide in the United States, dubbing a “Rocky Mountain Suicide Belt” that has been discussed in Canadian media as well.
Escapism and its role in the ski community
However, there are factors beyond altitude that affect mental health in Canada’s ski towns.
Escapism is a common theme that drives people into the ski industry, explains Jackie Dickinson, executive director of the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS).
“Escapism is the willingness to run away and to escape and leave, maybe challenging situations, previous trauma of some kind, and go somewhere else with the hope that a change in environment will change the outcome of our journey,” she explains.
Dickinson says that escapism can be a positive thing, fostering the willingness to travel, be outside and seek adventure. However, these strengths could also become weaknesses.
“That idea of escapism can also be a factor which contributes to an increase in substance use.”
In a study by Mental Health Weekly Digest about substance usage amongst residents in a Swedish resort town, data indicated that seasonally employed individuals engaged in risky alcohol consumption at a rate of 82.9 per cent, compared to 58.0 per cent in the general population.
Similarly, seasonal employees also showed an increase in drug use, with a rate of 8.3 per cent compared to 2.8 per cent.
The party scene in resort towns draws many people in easily. For Saige Beaumont, a ski coach in Revelstoke, B.C., the first two years she lived in Revelstoke she “went totally crazy.”
“I was partying every night. I was working every day. I was skiing every day. Like I was just going and going and going,” Beaumont says.
“It got to a breaking point. I had to go home to my parent’s house for like a month because I was losing my mind because I have all these issues that I’m not addressing. I’m just doing drugs and drinking and thinking that’s fine.”
However, Fadeeff argues that the party scene in ski towns can be found anywhere and is a result of larger societal issues.
“The sense of escapism and people coming to resort towns hoping for something different might contribute to that a little bit, but they’re going to find a way to get messed up when they want to get messed up,” says Fadeeff.
“I think it’s a bigger problem with party culture, and there’s a lot of gaps in our society as a whole where we don’t take mental health as seriously as it should be.”
Distant support systems
One of the challenges many people face when moving to a resort town is the distance from traditional support networks. Dickinson explains traditional support networks as including family members and friends that “serve as a really positive protective layer to our well-being.”
“The opportunity to travel can do incredible things for our mental health and well-being. But when challenging systems or situations arrive, then we traditionally reach out again to that system,” Dickinson says.
When faced with distance from those systems, some need to “reach out beyond what we’ve traditionally felt comfortable doing,” which Dickinson suggests can be a barrier.
Despite entering the ski industry to help with his mental health, Fadeeff said that there was little support for staff that are struggling.
“There’s a lot of talk about being a community, but once somebody is actually in need, I’ve found the ski communities and companies to be pretty lacking in support,” he says.
“I watched a few people have breakdowns early on in the season, and the resorts just let them go and tell them to go home.”
Fadeeff is not alone when it comes to testimonies about a lack of support. Beaumont said she had a difficult time opening up about her mental health when she first moved to the area because of stigma.
“I tried to talk about those things with the people around me; I felt quite alienated,” Beaumont said.
“You’re talking about all these terrible things that are hard to talk about that you’re going through; the people I was surrounded by just rejected me. Like, ‘Oh, my God, this person’s insane, we are just going to push you to the side’ kind of thing.”
Benefits of working in resort towns
However, there are success stories when it comes to mental health within resort towns.
Hunter Skibin is currently working his first winter season at a ski resort in Alberta and describes his experience as “one of the best decisions that [he’s] made for [his] mental health in the last probably five or six years.”
Before making the decision to move to the Rocky Mountains, Skibin worked in information technology in Edmonton, which he described as being difficult for his mental wellbeing.
“I just wanted to find something that I was going to enjoy, regardless of how long I was going to be here or what the pay was going to be,” Skibin says.
However, he does acknowledge that if anything were to happen with his mental health during his time working for the resort, he is unsure if he would be able to find support through his employers or colleagues.
“It’s seasonal work, and it definitely feels like it,” he says.
‘Living the dream‘
For many, working at a ski resort is sold as a “privilege.” It can be difficult to open up about personal struggles when there is so much pressure to be living a “dream lifestyle,” one where people’s problems can be overlooked in favour of painting their lives as perfect.
“Can you confide in someone and tell them that you are not living the dream when you’re supposed to be out here, living the dream? There’s absolutely a lot of stigma around that,” Dickinson says.
This stigma permeates throughout ski towns and can make mental health support difficult to access.
Jas Clancy, a Revelstoke, B.C. resident of five years, explains a “band-aid” approach towards mental health that permeates ski towns.
“There isn’t a lot of space for talking about mental illness, or people say ‘oh, just go skiing, it’s fine,’” Clancy says.
“You can go skiing and still feel like a pile of shit and be super depressed. ‘Just go skiing’ isn’t a cure. It can really, really help your mental health, and I truly believe that outdoor recreation is magical, but it’s not curative.”
The curative properties of skiing can help people for a lifetime, but working in the industry is not a life-long option for some.
Now, Fadeeff is taking online classes with hopes to study illustration or graphic design in the future. For the first time in over 10 years, he is not spending the winter working at a ski resort.
“I love skiing. It’s my passion, and I never want to quit. I still want to live in the mountains, but I won’t work for the ski industry anymore because it’s not sustainable.”