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Ski resort towns are facing a mental health crisis. Whitefish is leading the way in finding solutions.

by Elsa Ericksen Whitefish Pilot
| March 20, 2024 12:00 AM

Whitefish is ahead of the curve in addressing the disproportionately high suicide rates affecting U.S. ski resort towns, according to panelists who spoke at a screening of the film “The Paradise Paradox” last week in Whitefish. Yet, they all agreed there is more work to be done to bolster access to mental health care.

The Nate Chute Foundation, a local nonprofit focusing on mental health services and suicide prevention, showed the documentary Thursday at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center. Produced by Olympic skier and Montanan Bode Miller, the film examines the mental health crisis in America's mountain towns and discusses innovative solutions emerging in response.

Following the film, Kacy Howard, former executive director of the foundation, remarked on how many of the strategies discussed in the film are already present in Whitefish, and have been in place for years or decades.

“The Nate Chute Foundation offers reimbursements for therapy sessions,” Howard said. “We have a community resource. We have somebody being a voice of suicide prevention. We have co-responders. We have providers. There are therapists in our schools for kids to see. We even have a banked slalom, it turns out.”

The Nate Chute Foundation is in its 25th year, and the film screening served to kick off its biggest fundraising weekend of the year, which includes the annual Nate Chute Banked Slalom and Boardercross event held at Whitefish Mountain Resort. This year the foundation iss hoping to raise $50,000 to support the work they do in the community. 

Jenny Cloutier, program director for the Nate Chute Foundation and a former ski patroller for Whitefish Mountain Resort, agreed that the nonprofit has been doing invaluable work for years to reduce stigma surrounding mental health conversations, especially on the mountain.

“The last time I was on this stage, it was filled with Whitefish Mountain Resort employees and they had invited me to come talk about our work and as a way to talk about their employee assistance program. It helps having someone up in front of all those hundreds of people talking about it and being in our schools and our mental health first aid classes. We get a cohort of 20-30 people and then each one of them is helping.”

Nick Polumbus, president of Whitefish Mountain Resort, believes that Whitefish’s smaller size when compared to other resort communities has been an advantage in tackling mental health issues. 

“Where we’re really fortunate is how many people return season to season,” he said. “That’s a huge advantage for us and it makes it feel a little bit more like a family and it makes it easier to invest in each other, which I think ultimately puts us in a position to be a step ahead when things start to go a little weird. Since we are a little closer, a little bit smaller, we can get our arms around it a little bit quicker. I think we’ve had a strong culture of caring for each other for years, for decades.” 

While Whitefish has already implemented many of the strategies highlighted in “The Paradise Paradox,” the panelists emphasized that there are still unmet needs in Whitefish and the Flathead Valley. Montana has led the nation in suicide deaths for more than 40 years, with suicide the second most common cause of death for Montanans between 10 and 44, according to the University of Montana. 

Resort communities like Whitefish face unique challenges that make it difficult to tackle mental health issues, including rural isolation, harsh winters, transient employees, prevalent substance abuse and a culture of rugged individualism. 

Further complicating matters is a lack of consistent funding for mental health services. Currently, Flathead County receives no money from the state for suicide prevention, leaving nonprofit organizations like the Nate Chute Foundation to fill the gap. More funding would be invaluable for expanding services in order to adequately serve the entire Flathead Valley.

Polumbus also highlighted the need to better communicate the resources that are already available, so that people are able to take advantage of them. 

“I don’t know that we always do the best job on the communication end,” he said. “We do a lot of really good things and have a lot of things available but we need to be communicating about them in the right time, whether it’s proactive or reactive.”

Local snowboarder and general manager of Stumptown Snowboards Dylan Parr agreed that communication and conversations throughout the year are essential to preventing mental health crises and reducing suicides in the mountain community. 

“We need more conversations like this,” Parr said. “There is a lot of energy in the snowboard community specifically that is honed in on this weekend, and then the weeks go by and it dissipates. The conversation every year after this event for me and my friends is how do we continue this? How do we keep that conversation going and keep the momentum building year round?”