To understand where pro skier Drew Petersen is coming from, you first have to know he's willing to have an hour-long sit-down conversation with a total stranger and open up about the darkest parts of his life, so long as he thinks he can help other people by doing so.
That's exactly where this story starts, after Petersen spoke with your reporter in the mountains Spencer Wilson about his struggles with mental health, Bipolar disorder, and thoughts of suicide throughout his life, even dating back to when he was a little kid.
"The earliest memory that I have of suicidal thoughts is from when I was nine years old," Petersen said, with all the weight a sentence like that carries.
Petersen said his upbringing was riddled with privilege, between living in Summit County, skiing all the time, getting good grades and having a healthy social and family life. But even with all those things, Petersen said the thing he felt more than anything was alone. It's a familiar feeling for people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, feeling the inability to share your feelings with others in the event you burden them (which, Petersen has now said, is the wrong approach. If you need to reach out to someone, don't hesitate).
"I think for those of us who are struggling, at least at first, are facing it alone," Petersen said.
As he grew up, getting better and better on a pair of skis, but still struggling with thoughts of killing himself, Petersen ended up living a double life in the public eye. On the one hand, he had the quintessential Colorado lifestyle.
"I'm a professional skier, I get paid to travel the world and ski powder, in front of cameras," Petersen said. "At the same time, I still struggle internally."
Petersen said aside from his own personal demons, he was stuck in a negative cultural whirlpool found in almost any mountain ski town built upon the mentality of "ski hard, party hard, stay hard." The pressure to preform and take greater risks in his skiing career meant Petersen was constantly pushing the limit of what his body could do, skiing through injury after injury, and taking on risks that ended up becoming season ending injuries. He also blames that internal depression manifesting inside his body as trauma, leading to more injuries.
"Like I've been through 13 surgeries," Petersen said, laughing. "I used to ski through injury all the time."
Second, the party culture of ski towns. Petersen said it took him a while to admit it, but he had developed a dangerous relationship with alcohol much like many people in the skiing community he knew up in Summit County. Whether it be drugs or alcohol, Petersen said it's an expectation that after a long day on the mountain, you're expected to keep the party going at any cost. It's just how things are.
"If you ask any single person who lives in a ski town or mountain town if they know of somebody who has a drug addiction problem or an abusive relationship with alcohol or other substances...every single person will say yes," Petersen said, grimly.
Third, stay hard.
Petersen believes the cultural implication of being "tough" and not showing weakness also plays a big part in combatting healthy conversations about mental health and depression. It's partially why there's an entire brand of therapy targeted towards breaking down that stigma, and why according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men at almost four times as likely to attempt killing themselves compared to women.
Petersen said he finally decided to reach out about his mental health after losing friends, his parents home almost burning in a wildfire, and a freak accident on Mt. Hood in Oregon when a boulder the size of a microwave fell onto his head while he was hiking up to ski. He would survive that but gain PTSD and a sense that he should have died that day on that mountain.
"For me, that was a 15 month spiral to get to that point where I was either going to kill myself or I was going to ask for help," Petersen said. "I'm so grateful and I'm so proud that I did ask for help."
Petersen now regularly sees a therapist in order to help him process his feelings, and is mindful of the effect he can have by sharing his story. He's been featured by major skiing brands for his story of vulnerablility and perseverance, and still takes the time to speak directly with people who he says are going though a lot of what he has, simply because he feels it's his calling to make sure they know they are not alone.
"All I want to do is reach out to every single person out there and just give them a big hug," Petersen said. "Because simply by being a human being, simply by being on this planet means that you are worthy of help."
"It means that you are worthy of love. It means that you are worthy of getting through the struggle that you're in right now."
If you would like to reach out to Petersen to let him know this story, or any of his stories he's told over the years about his openness with mental health struggles, please do so here.
for more features.