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Turning Tragedy Into Triumph

John Padilla

This story was first published in Issue #27, buy your copy: HERE.

My brother Jack was fifteen years old when he killed himself. He was a vibrant, athletic, intelligent, and, chiefly, empathetic fifteen-year-old boy. His life was centered around others and service to those who struggled with feeling alone in the world. He prided himself on being a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear at all hours of the night, and a welcoming face to friends, family, and classmates alike. His ability to understand and care for others was complimented by a fierce love for lacrosse, fishing, mountain biking, and adventure. His tenacious spirit became especially apparent when he was playing lacrosse as a goalie; his teammates, coaches, and fellow competitors marveled at his ability to not only make incredible saves, but to also fearlessly sprint up the field and score goals himself. It was inspiring to watch.

Unfortunately, Jack spent so much time and energy loving others that he had zero energy remaining to love himself. Nothing speaks more strongly to the effect that Jack had on others than what his extended network of friends and family have accomplished in his honor since he left us. We formed a group, JackStrong17, comprised of high schoolers, college kids, lawmakers, journalists, activists, artists, athletes, and scientific researchers with a singular, overarching goal: to destigmatize talking about teenage suicide. Our collective efforts have led to everything from public service announcements gone viral and school walkouts to state level legislation, medical breakthroughs on the topic, countless news stories, and now, a ski film.

The Mountain in My Mind is a ski and snowboard film about mental health. The movie is the first of its kind to interview skiers across the “Suicide Belt” in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. As the director of the film, I had the opportunity to film on location in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. The experience was inspiring, exciting, beautiful, and, ultimately, life-changing. But why, you might ask. Why a ski film?

Well, to put it bluntly, suicide is a bigger part of our ski community than many care to admit. It is the second leading cause of death in the United States for people aged 10-34. More to the point, for that same age group in the Rocky Mountains, suicide is the number one leading cause of death. Let that sink in. In ski towns throughout the west, suicide is the number one cause of death for young people. Zoom out a bit and the numbers are equally as terrifying: worldwide, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. And when you start to connect the dots between stats and the reasons behind the numbers, the true picture of what ails us starts to come into focus. Nearly one in three Americans aged 18-25 has a diagnosable mental illness. Depression, for example, is the leading cause of disability worldwide. These statistics, coupled with my experience of losing my little brother and my best friend, are my why.

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Photos: Jordan Skattum | John Padilla lays down a proper powder turn, moments before the sun sets on the Whitewater Ski Area in British Columbia, Canada (left), John Padilla looks out at a snowy Ymir Peak in BC (right)

But how I got behind the camera and actually started making a ski film about mental health is a wholly different thing. I had tunnel vision for medical school and becoming a doctor during my final semester of college at Montana State University. I had no clue what I would do if I did not get into medical school. Of course, we all know what happens to best laid plans. In fact, I never even applied for medical school. I tested positive for COVID days before my Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) date. It was a tough blow after studying for over a year, and even tougher when I learned that I would not be able to take the test until the next application cycle. And so, with my dream deferred, I graduated summa cum laude from MSU in December of 2021 with degrees in cellular biology and neuroscience with no real idea about what the future would hold.

Soon enough, an idea, very much inspired by my brother, began to take shape. It was an alchemy of my athletic and academic passions. My focus in undergrad was on pre-medicine and biomedical sciences, and I worked in a concussion research lab at The University of Colorado School of Medicine before conducting my own research at Montana State. My honors thesis was titled “Perceived Access to Mental Health Care Among Montana Young Adults.” I surveyed thousands of young people ages 18-24 across nearly every rural county in Montana. The resulting data showed three primary barriers to mental health care: worried loved ones, the cost of treatment, and societal stigmas. After seeing scores of social media posts and hearing story after story about suicides in the ski industry, I chose to focus my attention on stigma. Consequently, I made a post on, a popular online forum and community for freeskiers that I had been a part of for years.I explained my story and asked if there were any brands or skiers willing to help out with a film about mental health that was specifically targeted to skiers. The thread exploded. Within a few days, I had so many messages to answer and positive comments to respond to that I struggled to keep up.

I created a small team of co-conspirators from these messages to help me make my movie idea a reality. I began making cold calls and sending emails in hopes of jumpstarting the process. I started a GoFundMe and collected gear donations from all the companies who had offered support. I had no plans to use any of the donated gear myself, so I created a giveaway where people could donate and sign up to win the gear. With the help of some additional cash donations from sponsoring companies like Line Skis and Flylow Gear, I ultimately raised about $15,000. I started recruiting athletes, storyboarding, and soon enough came up with a basic plan. It included talking about mental health subjects that can lead people to suicidal thoughts, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, sexual assault, substance abuse, domestic abuse, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and more. From a large list of folks who wanted to help, I selected eight athletes who I felt could share their stories in a potent and relatable way. The result is a truly grassroots film that features nearly as many men as it does women and has all manner of skiing.

I hit the road last winter and ultimately traveled over 36,000 miles in the name of gathering footage. I began with Audrey Friess, who talked about her experience with domestic violence and threw down a heavy urban/street skiing segment in British Columbia. I then went to Washington State and interviewed Sarah Dolan about her experience being sexually assaulted. She skied her heart out at her home hill, Crystal Mountain, and even tossed her first backflip. I continued the journey with great momentum in Utah with Clare Chapman. She put down tricks on a bulletproof, low tide snowpack at Alta Ski Area with grace and told an open story about her struggles with an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, and anxiety. I then met up with skiing legend Forrest Coots in Reno, Nevada and drove with him to Bishop, California. Despite being twenty years older than me, Forrest kicked my butt on long ski mountaineering adventures in the John Muir Wilderness and used his wisdom to tell the story of how he lost his own younger brother, Brooks, to suicide under very similar circumstances to my own. Needless to say, we are now bonded for life, and I see him as a mentor, both in skiing and in being a part of this terrible club of suicide-loss survivors.

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Photos: John Padilla | Sarah Dolan being interviewed in Southwest Montana (left), Forrest Coots crampons up a classic ski descent in California’s John Muir Wilderness (right)

I then returned home to Montana and filmed with Jack Clark, who bravely told his story of living with bipolar disorder and then threw his body around for an epic snowmobile-assisted skiing segment despite being less than a year out from his ACL surgery. My filming odyssey culminated in a month-long trip to Mount Hood, Oregon, during which I filmed insane park segments with Jed Waters and Bobby Sullivan. Jed talked about his tumultuous experiences being a high school senior during Covid, while Bobby spoke about overcoming a dependency on substances. I should also note that Sarah Dolan was there at nearly every single location and ran the cameras at many of the stops between her own pillow lines and powder skiing. I self-filmed and interviewed myself for the film’s penultimate segment about suicide and depression. My segment includes clips from every stop and every discipline of skiing I experienced along the way. It was a massive challenge for me, as I am no expert in any of them, but the process of learning to ski everything from handrails in Nelson, BC to vertical couloirs in California was an incredible growth opportunity for me, one that worked to illuminate the dynamic and ever shifting complexities of mental health.

For me, solving the ski industry’s suicide epidemic begins with making ourselves vulnerable, and telling our stories openly, honestly, and unapologetically. The skiing and talent is what will likely draw viewers to watch The Mountain in My Mind, but the candid, raw, and real stories behind each skier are what will inspire change for the next generation of skiers. If you take anything away from my story and this film, let it be this: There is light at the end of the tunnel. It is totally okay to not be okay. Talk to anyone who will listen when you need help. And, for those of us who do not struggle with mental illness, be there for those of us who do. Ask the hard questions. Engage with your friends, especially those who seem the happiest and light up every room they enter. Be direct and ask: are you thinking about suicide? You never know what their answer could be. Your conversation could save a life.

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Artwork: Liam Johnston

Watch The Mountain in My Mind full film here:


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