Cabin fever beyond what meets the eye

The “paradise paradox” and mental health in ski towns


With surrounding white mountain caps, sun peaking through green trees, and a turquoise blue lake taking up nearly 122,000 acres, Lake Tahoe is a destination to cross off the bucket list. An estimated 3 million people visit Lake Tahoe each year and there is no question as to why.

As for residents of this mountain town, does the external beauty really match their internal state or is it all part of the “paradise paradox?” With over five suicides in the last two years in Truckee, CA alone, the taboo subject of mental health becomes more prevalent in this small ski town.

The inconsistency that locals experience in resort towns across the U.S. make it difficult to live a fulfilled life even if others dream of being in their position. Michael H. Allen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Depression Center believes that the “seasonal nature” of mountain towns leads to feelings of instability in other aspects of their life.

The unstable process of jumping from job to job, making temporary friends, and living the rapid paced lifestyle results in less meaningful social relationships and a decrease in overall quality of life. In a study done by Psychology Today, the research showed that deep connections with people on a day to day basis have a large impact on people’s “happiness and sense of belongingness.”

Connections in ski towns tend to live a little more surface level as things are constantly changing and seasonal employees come and go.

It is no surprise that South Lake Tahoe is number four on the top nine best party mountain towns in America according to Thrillist media site. With chain casinos and raging night-life, the snow town is filled with people ready to party. There is a point where the overuse leads to a downward spiral and a fun activity turns into a co-dependency.

Living the “snow bum” lifestyle comes with an excessive amount of partying and a culture that thrives on living day by day. Liquid courage plays a big role in everyday lives as snowboarders catch lifts and gear up to hit rails. Alcohol is not the only substance used in ski towns and research from Snows Best shows that drugs, cocaine in particular, are more likely to be abused in mountain towns and have been a part of the “ski culture” for a long time.

Just like depressants, altitude leads to a change in brain chemistry which all residents of Lake Tahoe and other towns like it experience. The higher in elevation you go, the less oxygen in the blood, which then lowers serotonin levels, according to a study found by Utah Public Radio.

Serotonin is known as the “happy chemical” that controls “sleep, memory, neurological processes, and depression.” A balanced amount is necessary for a person to feel worthy and fulfilled. In mountain towns that are up to almost 8,000 feet in elevation, serotonin is a lot harder to obtain. As those serotonin levels decrease, another neurotransmitter takes its place–dopamine. Dopamine Levels begin increasing in higher altitudes according to National Geographic.

Dopamine acts as our conscience and controls our impulse. There is a science behind the bold choices that ski and snowboard enthusiasts make and their excitement for risk-taking activities. An overload of dopamine in the brain leads to more impulsive decisions according to Psychology Today. This sounds beneficial for the young active snowboarder headed to the park, but for some it can be extremely detrimental.

A person who already suffers from depression or a mood disorder is going to be more susceptible to, and even experience worsened mood swings. These chemical imbalances are part of the reason suicide is nearly 40 percent higher than that of a town at sea level.