22/06/2024

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“Paradise Paradox” film takes on mental health in mountain towns

8 min read
“Paradise Paradox” film takes on mental health in mountain towns

The image of Western ski towns as glamorous, fun-filled and carefree gets a reality check in a new documentary film focusing on disproportionally high suicide rates in Rocky Mountain states, sometimes described by mental health experts as the Suicide Belt.

Called “The Paradise Paradox,” the film explores how party culture, addiction, isolation, loneliness, the high cost of mountain living and inadequate public health resources in ski towns contribute to higher suicide rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the six states with the highest suicide rates in 2021, four were in the Rockies. Wyoming led the list with Montana ranked second, New Mexico fourth and Colorado sixth.

Brett Rapkin, left, co-director of new documentary on mental health in mountain communities called The Paradise Paradox, poses with former Olympic ski racer Bode Miler, who was involved as an executive producer. (Provided by Podium Pictures)
Brett Rapkin, left, co-director of new documentary on mental health in mountain communities called The Paradise Paradox, poses with former Olympic ski racer Bode Miler, who was involved as an executive producer. (Provided by Podium Pictures)

But the film also highlights efforts to improve mental health resources in Vail and the Eagle River Valley, where community organizations have rallied to address shortcomings. It also sheds light on efforts to combat the problem in Grand County, which includes Winter Park, and by Denver-based Alterra Mountain Co., which operates more than a dozen ski areas across the country including Winter Park and Steamboat. Alterra is the title sponsor of the film.

“Once we realized some of the statistics in these mountain regions, in the Rockies in particular with people calling it the Suicide Belt, it was like, if we do it right, this is something that can help people,” said Brett Rapkin, a filmmaker who spearheaded the project and co-directed the film. “That’s how it started. The problem seems to be everywhere.”

You need to be tough to make it up here

Rapkin previously explored mental health among Olympic athletes in an HBO documentary, “The Weight of Gold.” Former Olympic ski racer Bode Miller, a longtime friend of Rapkin who worked with him on “The Weight of Gold,” served as executive producer of “The Paradise Paradox.” Miller grew up in a New England ski town, tiny Franconia, N.H., and lives now in Montana.

“Suicide is ultimately the worst-case scenario, but mental health is something every human deals with, all the time,” Miller told The Denver Post.

“Every human, at every level, in every demographic, socioeconomically, socially, has dealt with struggle. It’s a matter of being human. As a parent, as a husband, I am compelled to learn about this stuff because there’s zero chance that you get through life without needing more knowledge and more understanding, more skills and tools than you have in this space,” he added.

The Bucket Banked Slalom snowboard event at Winter Park is an annual fundraiser in memory of professional snowboarder Ben Lynch, a local rider who died by suicide in 2021. Proceeds benefit the Grand Foundation's HOPE Fund (Healing Opportunities through Prevention Efforts), which supports Grand County mental health advocacy and services. Lynch's story is part of a new documentary about mental health issues in mountain towns titled The Paradise Paradox. (Chris Wellhausen/Provided by Winter Park Resort)
The Bucket Banked Slalom snowboard event at Winter Park is an annual fundraiser in memory of professional snowboarder Ben Lynch, a local rider who died by suicide in 2021. Proceeds benefit the Grand Foundation’s HOPE Fund (Healing Opportunities through Prevention Efforts), which supports Grand County mental health advocacy and services. Lynch’s story is part of a new documentary about mental health issues in mountain towns titled The Paradise Paradox. (Chris Wellhausen/Provided by Winter Park Resort)

Bob Holme, director of mountain maintenance at Winter Park, appears in the film in a segment that describes the struggle and death of Ben Lynch, a professional snowboarder who took his own life in 2021. Holme coached Lynch while he was in grade school and high school.

“This is way bigger than just Ben. I lost five people in 18 months by suicide,” Holme said. “Everybody will talk about how awesome it is to live in the mountains in all that snow. When people say, ‘How is it living in the mountains?’ I’m like, ‘It’s really tough,’ straight up. It feels like it is winter nine months a year. You need to be tough to make it up here. That toughness comes with an emotional callous. People will kind of set it aside and go ‘No, it’s fine. It snows nine months a year, no big deal.’ But the cold days and the dark days start adding up.

“What I hope this film does, it creates a conversation to really start talking within the community about all things. Not just the good things, but all things, and to make space for it,” he added.

This artist's rendering depicts the Precourt Healing Center, a 50,000-square-foot in-patient facility for behavioral health patients in Eagle County which is set to open early in 2025. It will have 28 beds for short-term stays and treatment, structured behavioral health services, family support and comprehensive case management. Eagle County had 61 suicides from 2018-2022, 17 of them in 2022 alone. The healing center is a joint project between Vail Health and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to combat the county's alarming suicide rate and other mental health challenges. (Provided by Vail Health)
This artist’s rendering depicts the Precourt Healing Center, a 50,000-square-foot in-patient facility for behavioral health patients in Eagle County which is set to open early in 2025. It will have 28 beds for short-term stays and treatment, structured behavioral health services, family support and comprehensive case management. Eagle County had 61 suicides from 2018-2022, 17 of them in 2022 alone. The healing center is a joint project between Vail Health and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to combat the county’s alarming suicide rate and other mental health challenges. (Provided by Vail Health)

A message of optimism

According to CDPHE figures, Eagle County (which includes Vail) had 61 suicides from 2018-2022 and Grand County had 19. Summit County (which includes Breckenridge, Dillon, Silverthorne and Frisco) had 24 (2018-21).

In 2019, Vail Health committed $160 million over 10 years to attack the problem by improving mental health resources in the county. At the time, patients in crisis had to travel two or more hours to receive in-patient care. Now a 50,000-square-foot, 28-bed in-patient facility is being built in Edwards and is due to open early in 2025. In 2019, there were no fulltime licensed clinical providers in county schools. Now every school has one.

At the forefront of those efforts has been Chris Lindley, chief population health officer at Vail Health, who is mostly pleased with the way the film turned out.

“I think it’s a great documentation of the issues that are facing the rural and mountain communities of Colorado, Utah, California,” Lindley said. “The rural resort communities, I think they did a great job talking about those challenges of living in those communities, accessing behavioral health care, and the lifestyle we see in many of those communities because they are resort-driven communities that attract a lot of folks that are coming there on vacation to party, and the challenge that creates for the community living there.”

Chris Lindley, chief population health officer at Vail Health, says the Eagle Valley has seen
Chris Lindley, chief population health officer at Vail Health, says the Eagle Valley has seen “a transformation of our behavior health system in four short years,” including the creation of new mental health resources and the construction of a new behavioral health in-patient hospital that will open early in 2025. (Provided by Vail Health)

He wishes the film had “a stronger message of optimism and hope” that could encourage other communities to approach the problem as a community priority, the way Eagle County has. The film holds up the Eagle Valley approach as a model for other communities.

“We’ve seen a transformation of our behavior health system in our valley in four short years,” Lindley said. “We’ve brought in a lot of new services, programs. We have many new providers in the community. We have a co-response system that’s now in place that I believe is the best in the state. It’s available 24/7 for free for anybody in our community. We have clinicians in every school. There are many great things taking place by many of our partners that were not highlighted in this film. My one hope would be that we find ways to share the stories of all of our partners, because they’re all doing amazing work up here that’s really moving the needle for all of us.”

Eagle County has rallied to the cause as a widespread community effort attacking the problem on multiple fronts, Lindley stressed.

“This is not one organization, one person, one group leading it,” Lindley said. “It’s local governments, from the county to the towns to the school district, the largest employer groups, multiple non-profit organizations. It’s Vail Health, the hospital system, Colorado Mountain Medical. It’s folks leaning in and identifying behavioral health as a priority, and all of us trusting each other to tackle and work on the issue.”

Still, Eagle County had a record 17 suicides in 2022.

A spiritual challenge

Miller, who won more Olympic medals and World Cup races than any other American man in skiing, believes providing expert resources can only go so far. He believes social alienation and superficial human interaction is partly to blame for mental health crises.

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