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Mind Maze

How young adults are navigating the path to mental health in Whistler

When Derek Snow arrived in Whistler from Newfoundland in 2013, the 21-year-old quickly immersed himself in the mountain lifestyle. He landed a job at Whistler Blackcomb (WB), skied like a demon, and partied hard. When summer rolled around, he hit the trails on his mountain bike and ripped it up. Snow had good friends and a good job. Anyone looking at him from afar would assume he had it all together—but he didn't.

"I couldn't bring myself to smile," says Snow. "I realized there was something wrong. I needed help."

Mental health is a big issue in Whistler. One reason is simply a matter of demographics. According to 2016 Statistics Canada census data, 30 per cent of the Whistler population is between the ages of 15 and 29, commonly the period when symptoms of mental illness tend to emerge. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year olds in British Columbia. And, in 2016, mental health was the primary presenting issue in over a third of the one-on-one sessions provided to 18 to 30 year olds by Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), a local non-profit that offers a range of social programs.

There are other possible factors, of course, including what a 2016 National Geographic article dubbed the "paradise paradox." Young people move to Whistler anticipating a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the reality might not live up to their expectations. Low wages and exorbitant rents mean long working hours, and in many cases, more than one job. Expensive and crowded living situations make it difficult to relax or get a decent night's sleep. A hectic party scene encourages substance use and abuse. And, at the same time, there is the idea that if you are living in such a perfect, fun place and aren't having a good time, there must be something wrong with you.

When Snow finally realized he needed to get help, a friend recommended he drop by the Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) office on the second floor of the Whistler Health Care Centre.

VCH, the regional health authority responsible for Whistler, focuses on providing resources for people dealing with persistent and severe mental illness and addictions, but they will assess any individual's situation to help them find the resources they need. This can be done by calling the VCH intake number or dropping by the office. More complex situations may require follow-up sessions.

"We always try to make sure you are better off after meeting with us than you were when you came in," says Kirsten Ellingson, clinical coordinator for Sea to Sky mental health services at VCH.

Once a person has been assessed, VCH has a number of options for providing support, from group sessions to help cope with anxiety and trauma, to mindfulness training and education-based substance abuse programs. The health authority's team includes a social worker, registered nurses, an occupational therapist, clinical counsellor and two psychiatrists.

Snow ended up seeing several different professionals through VCH. He ended up being diagnosed with moderate to severe anxiety and depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder. He was prescribed medication and worked with a counsellor on and off over a two-year period.

"The turnaround was dramatic," says Snow. "I went from being on the brink of disaster because of bad habits and bad behaviours, to moving forward in my life."

Sarah Kopinya had two very different experiences when she sought help for mental health issues in Whistler. Kopinya is a longtime local who first moved to Whistler in 2000 while still in high school. Three years later, at 17, she was a competitive snowboarder at the peak of her career. By the end of her most successful season, however, she was burned out, and efforts to lose weight threw her into a debilitating vortex of mental health problems and eating disorders. Kopinya says the help offered to her at that time was very different from the services available today.

"It was a nightmare. I went to see my family doctor and was given anti-depressants. A week later, I became suicidal, and then I ended up in and out of hospital for eight months over a two-year period, including two months in an eating disorders clinic," she relays.

It wasn't until Kopinya travelled to a healing centre in Costa Rica that she started to get the kind of help she needed.

"They took a much more holistic approach to mental health," she says. "They looked at the core of what was causing the symptoms. They offered things like talk therapy, meditation, yoga and cognitive behavioural therapy."

Kopinya turned her life around and ended up staying and working at the centre in the Central American nation for seven years before returning to Whistler two years ago. Then, last spring, a back injury sent her reeling into a downward spiral. Before long, her past health issues reared their ugly heads.

"I was frightened to go to anyone because of my history of being forced to take drugs," says Kopinya, "and I didn't want to reach out because it is such a small town. I was worried I would run into people I know."

Despite her apprehensions, Kopinya ended up reaching out to the team at VCH, relieved to find that the support available was very different from the last time she sought help. Kopinya has benefited from group sessions and individual counselling, and notes that the resources offered today are much more consistent with the care she received in Costa Rica.

"It is completely opposite now," she says. "I feel very safe and supported and it is up to me to choose the approaches that will work best for me."

Whistler means different things to different people. Visitors come from across the globe looking for a world-class resort experience, and seasonal workers and longtime locals are under significant pressure to deliver—all while juggling the challenges of living in a tourist haven that is making it increasingly difficult to thrive in.

Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) tries to mitigate some of those pressures through a wide range of social programs. One of them, their outreach program, provides free, confidential support to anyone in the community—locals and seasonals alike. The outreach team helps people with a range of issues that include mental health, addictions, food security and financial challenges. There is no wait time to access the services offered. Outreach workers are available five days a week by email, text and phone. For those that meet the financial critieria, WCSS also works with several local counsellors, subsidizing a significant portion of the cost, up to 12 sessions, making these services available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

"Our outreach team focuses on connecting and meeting people where they are at," says Jackie Dickinson, the outreach program manager for WCSS. "We help them figure out what their next steps might be and what resources are available to them. One of the most powerful things we do is listen without interrupting. For most of us, feeling heard and feeling loved is almost indistinguishable."

Cheryl Skribe, outgoing executive director of WCSS, recognizes that the community makeup of Whistler makes it somewhat unique.

"We have three distinct groups which coexist in Whistler. There are the visitors who have invested a lot of money to be here and are looking for a specific type of experience. There are the young people who come here to work and who are vital for our success as a resort. And there are the locals who are trying to grab some space in the chaos to create a sense of organization and community," she says. "We need all three groups, and when they exist in harmony, it's magic."

But Skribe also acknowledges that living here can be particularly difficult for some of the resort's young workers.

"For many young people arriving in Whistler, it is their first adult experience," she says. "There are often some challenges around decision-making and this can have an effect on their mental health. Also, when you are going through a mental health challenge, it is very personal and for you to allow that vulnerability to be seen can be very difficult."

Whether consciously or not, sometimes people come to Whistler to leave something behind. That was the case for Maggie Mason*, a former Whistler Blackcomb (WB) ski instructor from Australia. Mason, 23, had been bouncing back and forth between Whistler and Australia for several years. Then while working in Australia one season, she was sexually assaulted.

"I did counselling afterwards for a few months in Australia and then I thought, 'I can deal with this' and I stopped," says Mason. "I thought I was over it, but one day, when I was teaching at Whistler, there was a student in my class with the same name as the person who assaulted me. I just broke down."

The next morning, Mason went to talk to her supervisors.

"I trusted my bosses and I decided to ask them for help because I didn't know where to start. What they did for me really blew me away. They cried with me and let me know that I wasn't alone. In a company of so many, they made me feel important and that they really cared."

Mason's supervisors immediately arranged for a taxi to take her to the WCSS office in Spring Creek. There, she met with a member of the outreach team who helped her create a system of supports, including counselling.

"I met with Jackie at Whistler Community Services and she was really understanding. She made me feel important and not alone," says Maggie. "I was even given vouchers so that my fiancé and I could work out at Meadow Park Sports Centre as a way to relax."

Mason's experience with WB is the result of a strong and very conscious commitment on the part of the company to provide supports for their staff. With over 4,400 employees and with many of them being young and far from home, WB acknowledges the importance of acting as a sort of surrogate family for their staff.

"When people come to Whistler, they get away from normal life a little bit," says Brian Good, director of human resources at WB. "People come here and they enjoy all the elements of the lifestyle to the fullest. It is very exciting, but it also means that people are pushing their limits and taking more risks. It makes them more susceptible to physical injuries and mental health problems."

Over the years, WB has developed an impressive range of programs to support the physical and mental health of their staff. Their Employee Assistance Program provides free, confidential, around-the-clock support by phone. A meal program offers, healthy well-balanced dinners six nights a week at cost. An employee social group, Club Shred, organizes social outings, such as trips to hockey games, as well as discounts for community activities and recreational facilities.

For employees living in WB's staff accommodation, called House, there is an advisor on every floor who acts as a mentor and organizes activities and events to encourage socializing, and a dedicated outreach worker who serves as a resource to advisors and anyone else who needs support.

"Ultimately, we genuinely care about the wellbeing of our employees and we work hard to break down the barriers that might prevent people from getting the help they need," says Good. "For the past several years, our House advisor supervisor, Jason McSkimming, has offered mental-health first-aid training for all our managers and supervisors. They learn how to recognize the symptoms of a mental health issue and they're given information about what resources are available within the company and the community."

Last year, the company gave out over $100,000 in relief grants for employees going through a difficult time. This could come in the form of money for an injured staff member who is unable to work, or an airline ticket home to cope with a family emergency. And, recently, Robert Katz, the CEO of Vail Resorts, WB's parent company, announced that he and his wife, Elena Amsterdam, had donated $100,000 to WCSS to support their mental health outreach services.

Snow has since left Whistler. He still struggles, and some days are harder than others, but he says that knowing it's normal to hit setbacks makes it easier for him to handle them. Snow and his girlfriend now reside in Quebec, where he has landed a good job he enjoys. He credits the help he received in Whistler for much of his current success.

"If I hadn't found help, I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to have the relationship I do now," he says. "And I have even begun to see the strengths in my mental challenges. For instance, my ADHD means I can really focus when it is important, and with OCD I am good at paying extra attention to details."

When asked why he was willing to share his story so openly, Snow says: "A lot of people know me in Whistler. They know that I ski, bike, travel. I do it all. Maybe if they know what I have gone through, they will be more willing to reach out and get help if they need it."

Mason is back in Australia now, but she has advice for anyone who might be struggling with similar challenges.

"Don't be afraid to ask for help. You are never in it alone. Find a friend, go to your employer and tell them you need help," she says. "And if you're worried about somebody, reach out. I noticed a friend who was struggling and I ended up helping him get the support he needed."

And Skribe at WCSS strongly encourages people to reach out for support sooner, rather than later.

"It is human nature to wait to seek help until the very last moment. You hope and believe that you will be able to manage, but the longer you wait, the harder it is to crawl out of that space," she says. "I often wish people would have come to see us two, three, or even six months earlier."