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High Risk At High Altitude: The 'Paradise Paradox' And What It Means For Ski Town Mental Health

Feb 16, 2021

The Mountain West has some of the highest suicide rates in the United States. Colorado is no exception; the state has been in the top 10 for highest suicide rates in the country since 2009. Ski towns, in particular, have significantly higher rates of suicide than the national average.

Mental health experts have called it the “paradise paradox,” and the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health cites factors ranging from financial instability, geographic isolation, lack of healthcare, easy access to firearms and the transient nature of resort communities as being some of the reasons communities in rural areas across the Mountain West continue to suffer from high suicide rates. In Aspen, that rate is two to three times the national average, according to CU’s School of Public Health.

“When people say, ‘we’re lucky to live here,’ I struggle with that statement,” explained local therapist Christina King. “A lot of people work their tail(s) off to be here. I don’t know if it’s just luck.”

King said many people financially struggle to afford accessing local recreational outlets, which can create its own negative feedback loop when it comes to mental health. Remembering to feel “lucky” to live in a place like Aspen also doesn’t address real mental health issues either, according to King. 

“I think we need to acknowledge that a hike at the Maroon Bells or a powder day doesn’t take away pain and suffering,” she said. “It can help to shift perspective … but I do often think we miss the mark of holding space for people and finding compassion and empathy before we jump into that action mode of, ‘just get outside, take a deep breath.’”  

King founded Aspen Strong in 2014 with this issue in mind. The organization aims to incorporate better mental health hygiene into the local community structure and culture. King said finding ways to talk more about mental health is an important part of destigmatizing the issue, and reaching that goal. She spoke to arts and culture reporter Kirsten Dobroth about the Roaring Fork Valley’s own “paradise paradox.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.