Numerous sports enthusiasts share a common aspiration to relocate to greater altitudes, enticed by the tranquil mountain settings and the belief that these locations are the ideal backdrop for dwelling and training. However, as they embark on this journey, they may encounter unforeseen challenges that extend beyond physical performance – potential repercussions on their psychological well-being.
An expanding body of research suggests that residing at high elevations could have unforeseen consequences for mental health. As we delve deeper into these findings, questions arise about the extent to which altitude may impact our state of mind and whether the attraction of picturesque mountain towns outweighs the potential risks.
Here are several studies that hint at a plausible connection between high elevations and an elevated risk of depression:
- Elevation as a Risk Variable: Research from 2010 has indicated elevation as a notable risk variable for major depressive disorder (MDD).
- Transitioning to Greater Elevations: A comprehensive study in 2019 found that relocating from low-altitude regions to high-altitude areas is associated with an uptick in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.
- Life at Elevated Elevations: An analysis in 2022 suggests that individuals living at higher altitudes, approximately 1,500 meters (roughly 5,000 feet) above sea level, may experience biological, inflammatory, and structural changes in the brain that could amplify the risk of experiencing depression symptoms.
Insights from Athletes and Professionals
Given this data, what insights do experts and athletes offer? Numerous coaches, athletes, and professionals acknowledge the plausible link but exercise caution when attributing mental health symptoms solely to life at high elevations. They highlight other factors like sleep deprivation, physical adaptation, and social isolation, which may also play a pivotal role in mental well-being, particularly in mountainous regions.
Drew Petersen, a professional skier who transitioned into a trail/ultrarunner and became a mental health advocate, has dedicated his career to raising awareness about suicide prevention and mental health in the athlete community. In a recent article for Outside, he noted the consistently high suicide rates in Rocky Mountain states, labeling the region as “The Suicide Belt.”
Petersen acknowledges, “While we don’t have a specific reason to attribute this to altitude, it’s one element that can make life in the mountains more challenging and stressful.” He underscores the “Paradise Paradox,” where the assumption that beautiful mountain living will automatically solve life’s challenges often falls short of reality.
Reflecting on his personal experience at altitude, Petersen shares, “I grew up and lived in a house at 9,600 feet in Silverthorne, and I’ve spent several years living at altitude. While I don’t notice an immediate impact on my mental health, I do find that altitude is harder on my body compared to my youth. The most noticeable effect is the difficulty in getting quality sleep, which is a fundamental pillar of mental health and mood stability.”
View this post on Instagram
Reid Burrows, a professional trail/ultrarunner and coach who recently relocated from Canada to the high-altitude region of Salida, Colorado, notes ongoing struggles with mental health, particularly since his move. He made substantial sacrifices to come to the U.S. as an athlete but is constrained by a visa that limits his employment options outside of running.
Despite forming a sense of community, Burrows primarily trains alone, spending long hours in the mountains by himself. While grateful for the opportunity to pursue his dream in the U.S., he faces unique challenges.
He points out, “I can’t have a part-time job, but I’m in an industry that doesn’t pay well. Given the circumstances and sacrifices I’ve made, running has become my full-time focus. But does that come at a cost?”
Supporting Mental Health at Altitude
While the correlation between altitude and mental health remains an intriguing subject, there are actions individuals can take to bolster their mental well-being at any elevation:
- Cultivate Connections: High-altitude living can sometimes be isolating, particularly in smaller mountain towns. Prioritize social interactions to build a sense of community, which can be vital for mental health, especially in places characterized by transient populations.
- Self-Care as a Priority: Prioritizing mental health as an athlete involves fundamental self-care: sufficient sleep, a balanced diet, strong social support, a sustainable exercise routine, outdoor time for vitamin D, mindfulness practices, and therapy.
- Maintain a Positive Outlook: Athletes should avoid tying their self-worth to their performance. It’s essential to remember that life encompasses more than just sports.
As we await further research on the relationship between altitude and mental health, it’s crucial to prioritize both our physical and mental well-being. Mental health is influenced by a complex interplay of factors, and while altitude may play a role, there are many other aspects we can control to enhance our mental health.