Dark Matter Premier & Mental Health in Teton County

Carving The Future & the Pink Garter Theatre hosted the premier of local shred legend Travis Rice’s new film, Dark Matter.

Some dance hungry patrons heard the question, “did you know that Teton County’s suicide rate is double the national average?” as they tried to pass our table on the way to the dance floor. Talia Atkins would follow up by offering a solution to the question, “come help kids get outside this winter! We are Carving the Future, a new snowboarding non-profit here in Jackson,” and win hundreds of hearts. I felt inadequate suggesting $10 donations to help kids snowboard.

Carving the Future (CTF), a nonprofit “Empowering Youth through Snowboarding and Skateboarding regardless of Economic Status,” supports youth seeking to pursue those sports in Jackson with awareness of a complex reality in the town. During their fundraiser at the Pink Garter Theater on February 29, CTF board members sparked conversations about mental illnesses that inflict residents of Teton county and how access to a sport can improve a young person’s life. Their passion for board sports, especially snowboarding, seeks to eliminate barriers so more kids can participate.

Carving the Future’s table at their February 29th fundraiser at the Pink Garter Theater in Jackson (Mariel DeLacy)
Volunteer Anthony Martino educating fundraiser participants about CTF Right (Mariel DeLacy)
JHSC Freeride Team’s booth (Mariel DeLacy)

It was at this event that I became inspired to write about CTF, mental illness, and the unique perspective of the nonprofit based on their board members’ experiences. The following essay pieces together Teton County’s history with mental illness and sheds light on CTF and their great aspirations for the youth in this community. Their courage, joy, and willingness to spark conversations on uncomfortable topics related to suicide and mental illness is why CTF is a vital part of the snowboarding community.

Since starting in the summer of 2018, Carving the Future has donated gear, snow and skateboards to kids and sponsored 10 participants with the Coombs Outdoors snowboarding program. This year they gathered volunteers to teach Arapahoe youth how to ski and snowboard in Jackson with Coombs Outdoors. In addition to mentoring, they sponsored youths’ lift tickets for the Coombs Outdoors program for snowboarding, the JHSC Freeride Program, and even provided scholarships for competitions (1).

At the basis of these events is a leadership grounded in the realities of mental illness that needs outlets like the programs CTF provides. Founder Adam Dowell and Atkins both experienced family members take their lives while growing up here in the county. Before screening Dark Matter, Dowell shared how his brother’s story impacted him growing up and how snowboarding helped prevent him from getting in trouble or increasing his depression after he died. “The sport broadened his vision when his world was shrinking,” quoted Robyn Vincent about Dowell.

This outlet soon became a passion for him, and his love of the sport eventually propelled him to the professional level. Since leaving that world, however, Dowell wanted to give back to kids who lacked entry to the sport, similar to when he was gifted a snowboard as a young kid (2).

Dowell and Atkins’ stories are not unique to this area. A little research into “Teton County” and “suicide” and you’ll find articles like National Geographic’s, “Here’s Why Ski Towns Are Seeing More Suicides,” which cites Teton County as one of several places struggling with this issue.

 Also dire, Wyoming’s suicide rate is the 2nd highest in the U.S. and is nearly double the national average. Teton County’s rate is higher than the state of Wyoming’s according to the 2018 St. John’s Community Health Needs Assessment. Deaths by suicide increased in both Teton County and Wyoming over the past several years for both adults and teens. According to the Casper Star Tribune, teen suicide (ages 15-19) jumped 40% in Wyoming from 2016-2019.

 In Teton county, the number nearly tripled from 2015-2018 for teens, rising from 6.99/100,000 to 23.89/100,000. “Suicidal ideation is complex and not always rooted in mental illness (3),” commented Beverly Shore of Teton County Public Health. She carefully explained that suicide, “is situational and [rooted] in one’s inability to cope and reason. If one is unable to distinguish distress, and eliminate desperation, suicide can seem like the only solution.”

Adam Dowell speaking at CTF fundraiser (Mariel DeLacy)
CTF and Coombs Outdoors partner to teach snowboarding to Arapahoe youth at Snow King Mountain Resort (David Gonzales)

This description opened my window of perception about suicide. Anyone can experience distress or desperation at times, so why do some seek help and others remain quiet? Mental illnesses can be difficult to discuss, which consequently limits individuals’ potential for treatment. People can experience shame for their problems and therefore fear talking about them with family or their community, let alone with a health professional. But it is important to acknowledge that [common mental illnesses like] anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders, and suicidal ideation, can all be improved. Shore notes, “they are no different from chronic physical illnesses such as diabetes. If we can encourage people to talk about their mental illness they create a foundation for their wellbeing. In order to talk, though, people have to not feel shame. The more knowledge they gain about the illness makes it less scary and more understandable for them and therefore more manageable.”

The solution appears to lie in communities supporting individuals getting help. Are ski towns somehow less able to provide this level of support for their residents? National Geographic listed the following examples as degrading the quality of life for residents in ski towns; disparity of wealth, isolation from previously deep social ties, the transient nature of ski towns make long-term relationships more challenging, so relationships can be short-term and less fulfilling, to substance use and abuse, and even the effects of altitude on our serotonin and dopamine levels. Deidre Ashley of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center (JHCCC) commented that many of the stressors that adults experience trickle down to their kids. Any of the above factors can build up and create very real issues for a household. If an individual cannot improve their situation they could begin to feel helpless and search for a way out, which may lead to someone having suicidal ideation and result in them creating a plan. “These folks can be deescalated,” says Beverly Shore, and they can go to the ER or call the National Suicide Prevention Life Line, JHCCC Crisis Line, or Curran Seeley for substance abuse disorder help (4).

“Setting up kids with gear!!! The stoke is Real” Photo from CTF Facebook page

So how does a group of snowboarders like CTF help support local youth who may be exposed to these stressors? Aside from seeking professional help, bonding with teachers and involvement in extracurricular activities greatly improves the lives of young people according to “Predictors of Resilience Among Inner City Youths” (Tiet, Huizinga, & Byrnes, 2010).

This was measured through resiliency, or have good outcomes despite the exposure to risky environments. Their study sought to understand how kids can turn out well adjusted (higher levels of academic achievement, self-esteem, and psycho-social functioning) with fewer anti-social behaviors (lower levels of gang involvement, delinquent behavior, and substance use). Extracurriculars “[provide] opportunities [for youth] to practice social and cognitive skills, to develop a sense of belonging as part of a group, to contribute to one’s community, to develop a social network of peers and adults, and to learn to handle challenges (Eccles et al. 2006).” Those involved in extra-curriculars tended to have better relationships with their teachers as well.

The study continues, “Youths who have strong bonds with parents or teachers may be more likely to talk to them at times of difficulties, and thus, these youths may be more likely to learn coping and interpersonal skills, and internalize values from their parents or teachers. An additional competent and loving adult may prevent youth from engaging in antisocial behaviors, which in turn may lead to engaging in more prosocial behaviors (Tiet et al. (2010).” The research found that stronger bonds with parents or teachers directly impacted a youth’s adjustment and ability to stay out of anti-social behaviors. Young people involved in extra-curricular activities tended to improve their relationships with adults, which elevated their overall adjustment. The earlier a child can access these outlets, the more resilient they become, where resiliency fosters greater resiliency (Tiet et al., 2010).

CTF can provide a community for kids to gain emotional support through mentorship financial support with gear, and a positive outlet through snowboarding. Their involvement in Jackson could promote a type of “neighborhood cohesion” that improves a young person’s self-esteem and positive affect (DiClemente et al., 2004).

Gone Boarding and the Burton Riglet Program partnered with CTF on March 12. Photo from CTF’s Facebook Page

The nonprofit has the potential to impact young lives profoundly by connecting them with any of their board members as they snow or skateboard. Atkins and Mark DeOrsay speak of snowboarding as a conduit for self-awareness and creativity. DeOrsay admires the open-mindedness he gains, “[it’s] a sport that is not bound by game rules and encourages creativity and looking at the space around [you] with a different eye.” This translates well with Atkins’ belief in connecting to nature and conservation. Snowboarding “[is] the gateway into personal growth and connection to our natural world that I feel everyone should have access to. The more time people spend in nature the more they can understand the importance of conservation, protecting what we have and spreading awareness of climate change.”

Spend any time with Atkins, read her bio, and feel connected, recharged, and inspired. She could relate to many people, young or not. Dave Peters believes this connection to nature can improve extreme conditions in someone’s life. By “being outside and exercising, this type of activity can …give [people] a better sense of well being and help combat depression, anxiety, stress and PTSD.” Kids could also meet Jackson legends like Marc Loebe or Lynn Linker, both of whom have a long history in the county.

Loebe owned Boardroom for 15 years in Jackson and loves the sport to this day. His is a message of individual empowerment, “I have as much fun now as I did when I first [started] riding, so to me the future of snowboarding is what you make it.” Linker promotes the sport from her life-long history with snow and the Village, all of which would inspire a young ripper. From growing up at the Village, to participating in famous clinics, to competing in college and making some extra money with the sport, “ I had no idea I would love [snowboarding] so much,” comments Linker. Ex-professional snowboarder and founder of CTF, Dowell, also joins this crew.

Waxing boards with Franco Snowboards
More gear handouts *photos from CTF Facebook

CTF is aware of the huge impact snowboarding can have on an individual’s life. Youth spending time outdoors with mentors who care about their well-being can prevent boredom or feelings of isolation.

The nonprofit is aware of mental illness in the county and wants to give kids an outlet in the outdoors before a young person feels the need to take drastic measures to permanently affect their life. In doing so, they give youth access to the absolute variety, beauty, and potential that Jackson Hole offers. They also promote youth playing and being kids, the simplest way of maximizing childhood. Their community support even reaches to the professional circuit, by bringing the film Dark Matter to their event on Saturday. The film is professional snowboarder Travis Rice’s most recent project and it was the first public screening, free of charge, in support of the non-profit’s goals. If kids do get involved with CTF, they get to see where passion for a sport can take people like Rice and Elias Eldhardt from Dark Matter.

Travis Rice did grow up in Jackson, afterall.

The multi-piece event partnered Atkins and Dowell with local Snowboarding affiliates JH Snowboarder magazine, JHSC Freeride Team, and Elevated Snowboards who showcased their work alongside a silent auction. Dark Matter screened around 8:00. Something Else DJs, spearheaded by DJs Hunter S, OhNassi, and DJ Crayon put on a dance party with guest DJs Brass Tax (Milk & Honey), Easy, Aeege, Eco, and Rimas from 9:30pm – 2:00am upstairs.

CTF founding member Mark DeOrsay rips a pow turn

As many snowboarders wondered how Rice and Eldhardt could possibly ride the spines of mountain faces consistently and gracefully, guests were invited to await the DJ set, which stayed until close that night. Appropriate to acknowledge, is that adult drinking impacts our youth culture here in Jackson, especially when it encourages us to socialize and even raise money in support of good causes. CTF wants to support youth having different outlets, so the 47% of 12th graders who admitted to drinking alcohol in the past 30 days in a survey conducted by the county in 2015 will have other decisions to make.

The nonprofit is dedicated to creating a culture in Jackson around snow and skateboarding in a way that may be absent today amidst the increased cost of living in the area. They had community support that night with all ages showing up to dance after the film.

CTF’s team educated as many people as possible Saturday night about mental health and suicide that is overlooked if you assume the beauty of Jackson’s surroundings is as accessible to its residents as it is to tourists. They inspired a lot of appreciation for our mountains that night. Participants contributed to a meaningful cause. This made the evening of “red-carpet” photos, silly dance moves, and a winter of skiing and riding all the more worthwhile.

The nonprofit accepts donations outside of fundraisers like the one at the Garter Saturday night. If you’d like to donate to CTF, email info@carvingthefuture.com, visit their donate page for more information. You can also apply for a scholarship on their website here.

Footnotes:(1)  Visit CTF’s event page for more information on upcoming snowboarding events happening around the area or for a list of their own (they want to host four, two of which are on-snow) and information on how to get involved.(2) Read more about his story on the CTF website or in issue 14 of JH Snowboarder Magazine’s article.(3) Mental illness Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. American Psychiatric Association : https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness(4) JH Community Counseling Center 24 hour Crisis Line (307) 733-2046 or Dial 911 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255