Managing Depression Naturally

Professional skier Jackie Paaso tried everything to alleviate the debilitating illness—and then found her own remedies in movement and nature.

Fear is not an obstacle

When professional skier Jackie Paaso scouts an impossible line through a band of huge cliffs, her piercing gaze is so unflinching, she seems to be immortal. Fearlessness is what she is known for, dropping 45-foot cliffs in competitions like the Freeride World Tour and Verbier Xtremes. (When she lands them, she wins. When she doesn’t, she crashes so hard it sometimes costs her months of rehabilitation.) But once you get to know her, her glacier-blue eyes also tell another story—that of a long and secret battle with depression.

In 2017, Paaso finally came forward about her struggles in an article written for Powder Magazine, in part to come to terms with it herself, and in part to help bring the issue to light for others. “The more I talked about it, the more I realized everybody has either dealt with it themselves or has a loved one who has,” she said during a recent Zoom interview from her home in Are, Sweden, where she lives with her husband, pro skier Reine Barkared. “But I also needed to make sure I was in a place where I could take criticism that would come back to me.”

After a couple of hospital stays, a brief stint on antidepressants, and a lot of therapy, Paaso eventually came to understand herself well enough to manage her depression naturally. This is her story.

When did you first realize that you were struggling?

In high school, my dad lost the health club he owned, and it became a huge financial strain on my parents to get me to the point where I needed to be as a mogul skier. As it got harder on them, it started to make me feel bad, and that started getting in the way of my Olympic dreams. Eventually, I needed to walk away from the sport. When something you’ve been doing for more than half of your life is over, that was a hard adjustment. I had a lot of years where I was lost. I didn’t have a goal.

Then in my early 20s, I got the opportunity to go to the Himalayas on this NOLS course. I really liked mountaineering and wanted to get into that. At the time I was dating somebody, and when I came back, he had a new girlfriend, and I didn’t know where I was going to live. I was in a place of nothing. Everything just got overwhelming. That was the first time I attempted suicide. I fell apart. I then felt so ashamed, I wanted to sweep it under the rug. All I could think about was what everybody else thought instead of making myself better.

What was it like for you after that?

I had a five-year period where it wasn’t always really bad, but it was never great. I was doing this bike ride from Seattle to San Diego with a group of people to raise money. Every morning I woke up feeling like I should be really happy, but I was miserable. I didn’t tell anyone. I always thought it was a weakness.

I ended up attempting suicide a second time. I was in the hospital and at the point where I knew I couldn’t do this on my own. I found someone to talk to who really understood what my passion was, and that really helped. I tried antidepressants, but they only made me feel numb. It was therapy, getting outside, and changing my whole mindset that flipped the switch.

Were your parents supportive of you growing up?

Yes. My mom was never into sports herself, but she was at every event. My dad was a former pro football player, and he was invested in developing me as an athlete. He was quite harsh. In hindsight, I wish I had taken more of my father’s advice so I could have become a better athlete than I am today. I won every contest I entered, but he never congratulated me. He said, “What can we do to make it better next time?” I realize now, as an older athlete, that those were the sacrifices you have to make.

How does nature help you?

Getting outdoors is the best. I don’t know why, but it gets my mind off of everything else. You disconnect from all the things that are driving you crazy. It’s important to get out without your telephone, and to not worry so much about social media. Get out and enjoy the moment. That’s the key.

What else helps you cope?

It’s good to focus on something other than yourself. We just got a puppy, and instead of thinking about my performance all the time, I’m focused on teaching it new tricks and having a new little buddy.

Are you afraid you’ll end up back in that dark place?

I still have periods where I feel down, but I don’t think that depression scares me. It frustrates me, because it makes me struggle to appreciate how good my life is. I suppose there is a small part of me that is afraid that I can end up back in that dark place, but I try not to let that get in the way of making progress. When I think about my dark times, it’s sadness, frustration, and anger that I feel. I overcome those feelings by focusing on the things that make me happiest, like the outdoors, movement, and my dogs.

About Jackie Paaso

Pro skier Jackie Paaso grew up as a competitive mogul skier before moving into big-mountain freeride competitions, winning the 2016 Freeride World Tour and the Verbier Xtremes—earning a spot on ESPN’s top 50 Females in Action Sports. In 2018, Paaso teamed up with pro skier Eva Walkner to produce their ski movie, “Evolution of Dreams.” She now lives in Are, Sweden, and when she’s not launching huge cliffs on skis, she’s shredding dirt on her mountain bike.

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